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Autos hike fare on auto pilot

Autorickshaws, governed by Trinamul unions in the absence of government intervention, have raised fares by up to 50 per cent on certain routes even as buses struggle to wrangle a hike from a government run by the same party.

Bus operators went on a strike on Monday demanding a rise in fares that the government has been denying while almost turning a blind eye to the auto fare hike effected by the operators without the administration’s consent.

Autos on the Baguiati-Ultadanga route have raised fares by Rs 2 in December. Since Wednesday’s hike in the LPG price, autos on the Park Circus-Dharmatala route have been demanding Rs 15 for the distance that till Tuesday cost Rs 10.

The Ruby-Gariahat autos have raised their fares to Rs 10 from Rs 7. On most stretches, the stage-wise hike has been Re 1 or Rs 2.

The Trinamul government, which has time and again rejected bus unions’ demand for a fare hike despite multiple revision in fuel prices over the past year, seems reconciled to the auto fare rise.

Transport minister Madan Mitra, who only a few days ago had promised a crackdown on rule-flout autos, sounded helpless on Monday. “The autorickshaws do not listen to anyone. They do not listen to the unions or any political party. They run according to their own rules. It is very difficult to rein them in,” he told Metro on Monday evening.

But for buses, Mitra’s medicine was different. “We will not allow them to raise fares. I have told police to give me a list of buses that did not ply on Monday. If needed, we will cancel their registration,” he said.

The absence of nearly 8,000 buses from the city’s roads on Monday set the stage for autos to exploit passengers, the recent hike notwithstanding.

Autos on the Baguiati-Ultadanga route, which had hiked the fare to Rs 10 in December, charged Rs 25 on Monday.

At some places, auto drivers carved up the route to charge more. “None of the autos on the Thakurpukur-Taratala route ran the full length. As a result I had to pay Rs 7 for a 500m ride to Behala tram depot from Thakurpukur. From there I had to pay Rs 8 to another auto to reach Taratala,” said Gaurav Basu, a resident of Behala Manton. Basu ended up paying Rs 15, instead of the usual fare of Rs 7.

At the Gariahat crossing, cops had to intervene and manage an auto queue after drivers allegedly began overcharging passengers. All over the city, autos ferried five or even six passengers, instead of the stipulated four.

Minister Mitra hit the road early in the morning to ensure that commuters got some transport. But as for extortion by auto drivers, he only repeated his promise of a crackdown, which harassed passengers dubbed “hollow”.

“The government does not want to antagonise auto drivers ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. The drivers are a key support base of any ruling party. With Trinamul in power, most autos are affiliated to the party’s trade union,” said a commuter, who had to pay twice the actual fare on Monday.

Leaders of Trinamul auto unions admitted they had been under pressure from drivers to raise the fares. “There is pressure on us from drivers to raise the fares. I do not know how long we can withstand that,” said Dibyendu Das, a vice-president of Trinamul trade union’s north Calcutta chapter, while speaking about the few routes where fares have not been raised yet.

Bus operators questioned the government’s double standards — allowing autos to raise the fare and stopping buses from doing so. “When he meets us, transport minister Mitra agrees that raising bus fares is an imperative. But the next minute he vehemently opposes a price rise. It is so difficult for us to keep our union members calm as the government refuses to understand our problem,” said a member of the Bengal Bus Syndicate.

Though the bus unions — Bengal Bus Syndicate and Joint Council of Bus Syndicate are the most important ones — do not hold the banner of any political party, the leaders of both the unions are close to the Trinamul. Swarnakamal Saha, a Trinamul MLA, is one of the active members of the Bengal Bus Syndicate.

“Everyone understands that running a bus is turning into a loss-making business, but no one will tell the chief minister the truth. They will only tell her what she wants to hear,” grumbled an official of another bus union.