Responsible and law-abiding — these adjectives are as alien as possible from the Calcuttan’s impression of the ubiquitous autorickshaw driver. And here, apparently, lies the nub. Commenting on the rapid increase of the covered three-wheeler as one of the cheapest and most convenient means of transport in the city, a transport department official had reportedly said that there would be no more problems if autorickshaw drivers became responsible and law-abiding. Clearly, the need for autorickshaws will grow rather than fall in spite of the reckless road tactics and the bullying and violent behaviour of their drivers. Their ascendancy has to do with the convergence of competing political patronage with the inadequacy of public transport in comparison to the rapid growth of the city. What has evolved is an unregulated, unionized workforce that is either ignorant or uncaring of traffic rules, and sometimes of rules of civilized behaviour. That is inevitable, for patronage gives rise to a defiance of the law, since the whole point of political one-upmanship lies in the distribution of special favours.
There is much practical wisdom in accepting the autorickshaw as part of Calcutta’s fate. But this is a city, not Mowgli’s jungle. To ensure that the autorickshaw is really a convenience as a type of transport in a modern city, something will have to be done about those who man them. The transport department is obviously aware of this, since the transport minister of West Bengal has promised workshops. Apparently, auto operators will bring about change for their own benefit through such workshops. The undertone of appeasement is unmistakeable in such a proposal. What is the magic that will turn this army into responsible and law-abiding beings? As long as rival political parties play the union game, there will be no change. To go beyond words, the transport department will also have to go beyond workshops. Will the government risk it?