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Panel ploy to protect auto rogues
Report dumped, another on way

there’s no flagging down a three-wheeler

Auto-cracy thrives on the streets of Calcutta because the government prefers forming committees to a crackdown, making illegal operators feel safe in the knowledge that each new report will gather dust just as the previous one did.

Close to 62,000 autorickshaws ply across multiple routes within the city and on the fringes, many of them without registration and/or a licence from the public vehicles department in Calcutta or the regional transport offices in the districts.

The fares are fixed by auto unions that enjoy political backing and immunity from law-enforcing agencies. Any attempt to regulate the system is directly or indirectly stymied.

In 2012, a 15-member committee comprising senior transport officials, police officers and an auto union representative had recommended a series of steps to regulate the sector and rein in errant drivers. On January 10, transport minister Madan Mitra formed a two-member committee to do exactly what the previous one did.

“The 2012 report was an exhaustive one, based on detailed inputs from police stations about routes in each area and the number of autos plying there,” Col. Sabyasachi Bagchi, deputy chairman of the public vehicles department, told Metro. “The recommendations were realistic and would have helped streamline the auto business in and around Calcutta.”

The committee suggested, among other steps, six colour-coded zones to tackle the problem of autos plying on different routes at different times of day. It also pointed out that nearly 40 per cent of the fleet of autos plying in Calcutta and its adjoining areas were illegal.

After sitting on the report for more than a year and a half, minister Mitra announced this month that a new committee would explore ways to regulate the auto sector.

Transport researchers said auto drivers routinely roughing up passengers — a driver in Park Circus allegedly struck a woman on the head with an iron rod on Monday — was a symptom rather than the disease.

“The bus fleet has shrunk because of the government’s refusal to hike fares. This has increased people’s dependence on autos and, in turn, made a section of operators more arrogant. They feel they are above the law because of political backing and the police’s reluctance to act against them strengthens that belief,” a researcher said.

Transport economist Dilip Haldar said it was unfortunate that political parties had more control over auto operators than the government, which should have had a system in place for strict monitoring of fares, road discipline, pollution and speed. “Calcutta’s autos are the most indisciplined lot but who cares?”

The new committee formed to do the job has already missed its first deadline of seven days. Insiders in the transport department said it took a while to find the old report for the two-member panel to use as reference material.

Naba Dutta, who is part of an auto-related research commissioned by the School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University, said: “The veil of illegality cast by the state government on autos from the beginning has forced the fleet to toe the political line of whoever is in power. This makes them believe they can get away doing anything.”

Their mode of operation is also in violation of rules.

“While autos in other cities run as contract carriage (with a meter, just like a taxi), those in Calcutta are registered as contract carriage but operate illegally as state carriage (like a bus, where a person has to pay a fixed amount to travel a certain distance). This is apparently with the government’s sanction since the transport authorities fix routes for autos,” Dutta said.

For the police, the political connections of auto operators’ unions come in the way of their enforcing the law. Unless the incident is a serious one like hitting a passenger with an iron rod or slapping a woman for not carrying change, the police generally won’t book an auto driver for a road offence.

“Across all traffic guards in Calcutta, an auto is rarely booked for offences like stop-line violation or even rash and negligent driving,” a senior traffic police officer said. “Some of the autos out on the streets aren’t registered either.”

In blue-book violations such as carrying excess passengers, drivers are not even fined. “An auto can’t carry more than three passengers, if you go by the book. But this is something the previous committee didn’t get into,” an official of the transport department said.

“Similarly, there was no discussion on auto drivers holding driving licences. The rule book states that a driver should have at least two years’ experience of driving a light motor vehicle to be eligible to ride an auto.”

Committee members said determining the nature of the vehicle — contract or state carriage — was the difficult part.

“Autos here are considered to be contract carriage, yet they run without meters. So the committee proposed three slabs for fixing fares — 0-3km, 3-7km and up to 9km,” said a member of the committee from the Bidhannagar police commissionerate.

The panel also proposed that all autos should have high-security registration plates.

“We found out there were many registered autos that didn’t have route permits. So the committee proposed that these autos be accommodated on routes where there weren’t enough. Doing this would automatically rationalise auto routes,” the officer said.

The committee mentioned in its report that only the public vehicles department had notified around 300 routes. The regional transport offices, including in Howrah, had issued route permits arbitrarily.

What is the solution to auto-cracy in Calcutta? Tell ttmetro@abpmail.com