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Partial rollback of bus fare

Calcutta, Nov. 16: The Bengal government has partially rolled back the bus fare increase in Calcutta and its suburbs, freezing the hike at Re 1 across the board.

This evening’s somersault was executed in a little over a fortnight after agonising over the fare revision for months during which many buses disappeared from the roads. The revised rates for the rest of the state are expected to be announced later.

The revision seeks to remove what chief minister Mamata Banerjee felt was an anomaly for some commuters who ended up paying Rs 3 and Rs 2 more after the fare was changed on October 31.

The government’s stated objective was to limit the hike to Re 1 but in some traffic-heavy slabs — such as distances up to 4km — commuters had to cough up Rs 3 more than what they had been paying till October 31.

Transport operators were struggling with calculators this evening to figure out the impact of the fresh revision. If the new fares affect the viability of services, Bengal could be headed for another round of transport turbulence, whose first edition saw the undeclared disappearance of buses from the roads.

That the government was in a tizzy over the chief minister’s diktat to stick to the Re 1 Lakshman rekha was evident over the past few days.

Today, industries minister Partha Chatterjee, the chairperson of the group of ministers on transport, wrestled with the issue in the company of transport minister Madan Mitra and senior government officials, including chief secretary Sanjay Mitra, for four-and-a-half hours. The announcement of the re-revision was made at 8pm.

On October 31, too, Chatterjee had rolled out the revised fare structure following which regional transport authorities, which come under the transport department, worked on attested charts to be displayed on buses.

If the October revision had come about after a gap of around three years, during which diesel prices had gone up by around 45 per cent, the re-revision took just 16 days.

“We had always stated that the fare would not go up by more than Re 1 in any of the stages. That’s what we have clarified with today’s order,” said Chatterjee.

The minister did not explain the reasons behind scrapping the earlier order, which was issued based on the recommendations of the group of ministers headed by him.

Repeated threats of indefinite strikes and a steady decline in the fleet of buses — from around 34,000 to around 14,000 across the state — had forced the state government to announce publicly its first hike in any utility charge since assuming office.

The group of ministers met several times in September and October and scrutinised the balance sheets of operators before proposing the new rate structure, which was announced only after the chief minister gave her seal of approval.

Some bureaucrats had then spied the stirrings of pragmatism in the chief minister, only to watch in dismay as the group of ministers scrambled yesterday for a way out.

A section of commuters — primarily those travelling between 3km and 4km — was complaining about the Rs 3 (around 77 per cent) hike and the rumblings had reached the chief minister at a puja, ironically organised by a transport leader.

It is not clear if the now-junked formula was thought up by an ingenious mind in the government and the ministers missed the Re 1 transgression that was hidden in a foliage of figures. But the revision had brought the buses back on the roads. Rising operational costs resulting in losses had forced more than 60 per cent bus operators to pull out their buses before the rise.

“The new rate structure helped us to break even and also earn some returns. But today’s order will again spell doom for us,” said Deepak Sarkar, the president of the Bengal Bus Syndicate.

According to Sarkar, members of the association would meet tomorrow after working out the impact of the new rate structure on earnings.

“There is little doubt that we will be making losses…. We are just trying to calculate the extent of losses, following which we will decide our course of action,” said Tapan Bandyopadhyay, secretary, the Joint Council of Bus Syndicate.

A Writers’ official said the partial rollback would make it difficult for officials to negotiate with the transport operators if they again threaten to go on strike.

“We know about their balance sheets and the new fare structure was worked out on the basis of that. There is nothing else to discuss. Private operators cannot run their buses ignoring losses the way the state transport corporations do,” said an official.