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Monday blues minus buses

- Government refuses to blink as commuter woes rise, turns blind eye to three-wheel tactics
With few buses on the road, commuters hopped on to almost any vehicle that came their way. Be it
a mini-truck or a passing car, motorbike or a cycle, commuters did not let go any opportunity to beat the strike and reach their destinations. Many passengers claimed they had started early from home for office.
Place: Near Majerhat.
Time: 10am
Volvo buses saved the day for many office-bound commuters. The bus strike resulted in occupancy on the Volvo buses shooting up by 30 to 40 per cent. All 60 Volvo buses plied on Monday.
Place: Ultadanga.
Time: 11am

Autorickshaws had a field day, with many extorting hapless passengers, in the absence of buses. Those plying between Ultadanga and the SDF building in Sector V charged Rs 30, instead of the actual fare of Rs 25. Passengers on other routes, too, had a similar tale to tell.
Place: Ultadanga.
Time: 10.50am

Text: Zeeshan Jawed and Tamaghna Banerjee. Pictures: Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya and Sanat Kr. Sinha

At Behala’s Sakherbazar, Santanu Das has to wait for about 15 minutes every day for a bus because they have become so scarce. On Monday, he was waiting for an hour and 15 minutes without one in sight.

Transport minister Madan Mitra thanked the people for turning out in numbers and spoiling the bus strike. Tens of thousands of commuters complained that they would rather pay a bit more than be left without a bus to catch.

Most buses stayed off the roads demanding a fare hike on the first workday of the week — and for many the first schoolday after the winter break — as autos and taxis had a field day, charging steeper fares and flouting rules.

“Commuters have suffered. There have been instances when taxis and auto operators have charged more. But by turning out in great numbers, people have not allowed the bus operators to cripple the administration,” added Mitra.

Midway through the strike the minister promised a crackdown. But even unions that are pro-Trinamul did not seem too scared. “We have sought a list of those bus operators who kept off the roads. The government will take necessary action against these operators,” Mitra said. “If required we would cancel their permits and pass it on to others.”

Such a widespread bus strike wouldn’t have been possible had the Trinamul-led bus unions across Calcutta not participated. Most union leaders admitted that drivers and conductors, part of the bus unions on every route, refused to take out vehicles.

“The drivers and conductors are now unable to take home an amount that would see them through a month,” said Deepak Sarkar of the Trinamul-backed Bengal Bus Syndicate. “Unhappy with the existing fare system they decided to express their solidarity with the bus-owners.”

But the government, Mitra said, is “open to talks on anything except a fare hike”.

The contradictions in Mitra’s words — and admissions — capture the fix that the Mamata Banerjee government has landed itself in on bus fares in Bengal.

Metro explores some of the issues plaguing the transport department in Bengal that have virtually resulted in policy paralysis.

Catch-22

The government is caught between a rock (its populist policies) and a hard place (buses going missing).

Private bus operators claimed over 25-30 per cent of the owners have withdrawn their buses, unable to cope with the spiralling price of diesel.

Since the last fare revision in November 2012, the Trinamul government has refused any discussion on fare hike for private buses and minis.

“From November 2012 till January 3, the price of diesel has gone up 16 times. A litre of diesel now costs Rs 8.45 more than what it did in November ’12. Yet the fares have remained the same,” said Tapan Bandopadhayay of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicate.

The waiting time at bus stops is rising alarmingly. “We wouldn’t mind paying some more provided there are enough buses during peak hours,” said Sayani Chatterjee, a resident of Kasba working for a private company. “Even Metro fares have been increased. Fare hike is a reality we must all face.”

Cash crunch

When Mamata Banerjee decided to do away with the concept of paying crores in subsidy to the transport corporations, she was lauded by all. Her first moves were aimed at restructuring the state transport undertakings (STUs) and making them self-reliant. The message? Generate enough revenue to break even.

But how will the revenues rise if ticket prices remain stagnant?

The government tried to generate some by unlocking 373 cottahs of land lying unutilised in five tram corporation depots to private players. “The immediate idea was to mop up money to procure around 1,000 new buses, including over 600 for Calcutta, under the JNNURM scheme, where the state government pays for 65 per cent of the total price,” said a senior transport official.

But with government setting a stiff mark and the realty industry battling a low, the response was lukewarm. As the finance department readies for a re-tendering, the cash-strapped government is struggling to fill the demand-supply gap of buses on the road.

Group of ministers

With an eye on reforms in the transport sector, Mamata Banerjee had set up a four-member committee. Partha Chatterjee was made the chairman of this Group of Ministers. After Chatterjee lost his industries portfolio, no one is sure about the status of the committee.
With finance minister Amit Mitra now slipping into Chatterjee’s commerce and industries shoes, the GoM is in a fix as to who would be the chairman and call the shots. The first meeting of the GoM after Chatterjee’s exit was scheduled on December 28. With no one ready, it was re-scheduled on December 30. The meeting never took place.

Tug of war

Every time private bus and mini-bus operators pressed for a revision of fares and sought the government’s help, the transport department bought time with the promise to “look into the demands”.

Almost a year since the last fares were revised in Bengal in 2012, bus unions had gone in for a 48-hour bus strike in September 2013 pressing for a revision of fares. The government waited the first day and then swung into action to ensure that the strike was called off the next day.

Sadhan Das of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates had then said: “We have been requested to call off the strike by the minister (Madan Mitra). He has assured us that a decision will be taken regarding fare hike after Durga Puja.”

Pujas over, the government slipped into denial mode. When bus operators started pressing for a fare hike again, Mitra decided to visit the unions for talks.
On November 30, he met representatives of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates and Bengal Bus Syndicate in their offices to listen to their demand for the proposed bus fare hike.

Back in his office, Mitra said hiking bus fares was “out of the question”.