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Bus strike hobbles north

- Travel to work smooth in pockets of south

Jan. 6: The private bus strike today adversely affected residents in the six north Bengal districts where train service is not as widespread as in the south of the state.

Over 7,500 private buses, minibuses and maxi-taxis were off the roads in the six northern districts because vehicle owners want a revision of fares.

The North Bengal State Transport Corporation (NBSTC) said it deployed additional buses but they seemed inadequate in dealing with the rush for vehicles on the first day of the week.

Many passengers complained that they had to pay more to hire small private vehicles.

In the southern districts, where a large section of the workforce travels by train to neighbouring towns and to Calcutta on weekdays, the disruptive effect of the strike was marginal in several areas.

Also, in some areas in the southern districts, bus unions did not join the strike.

Buses ran normally in Arambagh, Hooghly, and minibuses did not join the strike in Durgapur and Asansol, two of south Bengal’s key urban centres.

The secretary of Durgapur Mini Bus Operators’ Association, Aloke Chatterjee said that they did not participate in the strike as “people would have been inconvenienced”.

However, as long distance private buses did not ply, some passengers were inconvenienced.

In Siliguri, Pranab Mani, general secretary of the North Bengal Passenger Transport Owners’ Coordination Committee, explained why the private bus owners wanted to hike fares.

“Our expenditure per kilometre is 70 paisa, whereas we charge 55 paisa per kilometre from passengers. There is a shortage of 15 paisa per passenger per kilometre, which at the end of a week or even a day is quite an amount. We want the fares to be revised to 75 paisa per kilometre.”

The North Bengal Passenger Transport Owners’ Coordination Committee is the apex body of private bus owners’ associations in north Bengal.

The bus fare was last revised on November 1, 2012, and increased to 55 paisa per kilometre.

“Since then, the price of diesel has increased several times. Today the difference in the fuel price as compared to November 2012 is more than Rs 8 a litre. Other expenses like insurance, salaries and wages of our staff have also increased. We can no longer bear the costs,” Mani said.

For passengers, the harrowing time began the moment they stepped out for work in the morning.

“Today, I could not get a bus to reach my school at Manikchak, around 35km away. There were a few government buses, but those don’t cover all the local routes. I had to take leave and stay at home,” Soumya Sarkar, a schoolteacher in Malda, said.

In Jalpaiguri, similar accounts were heard.

Over 100-odd buses which ply to Siliguri, Dooars and Cooch Behar were off the roads. Swapan Ghosh, a government employee, who goes to Dhupguri from Jalpaiguri, had to leave early from home. “I could manage to get hold of a private vehicle which charged me Rs 150 for a ride to in Dhupguri, which is over four times the bus fare. I don’t know how I will return to Jalpaiguri, or at least till Paharpur More,” he said.

In Cooch Behar, Sarbananda Das, a health worker who goes to Balarampur, around 40km away had to take the help of his son.

“As no buses were available, I asked my son to take me to my workplace on his two-wheeler. In this cold weather, both of us travelled for 80km on the motorcycle because of this strike,” he said.

In Siliguri, autorickshaws were the sole mode of transport across the subdivision.

Though assurances were given by officials of the transport department that autos would be dissuaded from overcharging passengers, many allegations of overcharging were reported by the commuters.