get past them if you can!
Autos ahead of the traffic — and beyond censure — at a Calcutta crossing
|A yellow chit issued to an auto driver (the vehicle number has been erased) by the Loha Pool Auto Stand off Park Circus against the daily operating fee — called “line ka chanda” — of Rs 3. The fee ranges between Rs 3 and Rs 10 on other routes.
Autorickshaws in Calcutta are like the goose that lays golden eggs for the ruling party of the day.
A scan of several routes ranging from busy to very busy revealed that the 60,000-odd autos in business pay Rs 3-10 each to their respective ruling party-affiliated unions every day. That translates to over Rs 1 crore a month.
Any investment this big would be expected to fetch commensurate returns. So, auto operators not only enjoy immunity from a crackdown but also the leeway to do as they please in return for their loyalty and monetary contribution.
Metro is in possession of a yellow chit (see picture) with Rs 3 clearly printed on it. The left corner has space to scribble the contributing autorickshaw’s registration number. To the right is the signature of the collector. In the space between is printed “Loha Pool Auto Stand Maintenance” in bold.
According to auto operators, the word “maintenance” stands for “line ka chanda (operating fee)”, which is collected by designated party workers every time a three-wheeler “joins the line” to carry passengers. The collectors are mostly “line starters” who work under union leaders in charge of revenue generation.
The chit is proof of how money changes hands across auto routes before making its way to the party coffers. On routes where auto drivers don’t get receipts, contributions are noted down in diaries maintained by the union leaders.
“We don’t know what happens to the money that is collected every day. Some say the party has to pay a monthly salary to the line starters and so the money must come from somewhere. Someone called Sonu collects the fee at Lohapool (off Park Circus) and issues the chit,” said an auto driver who claimed to be a member of the union.
A fellow driver said the daily contribution had increased from Rs 2 under Left Front rule to Rs 3.
“When traffic sergeants slap cases, the party leaders come to our rescue. If the fine is Rs 3,000 (for a permit violation), we get away by paying Rs 1,000,” the driver said. “In any case, if you don’t pay chanda, the union won’t allow you to join the line. Amra ‘anti’ hoye jabo (We will then be looked at as ‘anti’),” the driver said.
Many complained that the union bosses on the Lohapool route were less sympathetic than their counterparts in some other locations. “The leaders controlling the Topsia-Park Circus route allow autos to carry five passengers. They have fixed timings for that —before 9am and 7pm onwards. This is to make up for the current shortage of buses,” said a young auto operator.
The daily contribution from drivers is higher in the north. The 121 autos plying on the BK Pal Avenue-MG Road route pay Rs 5 a day to the union, sources said.
The amount is the same for the 65-odd autos plying between BK Pal Avenue and the 4B Bus stand in Baranagar.
“There is nothing official about it,” said a Trinamul trade union leader. “We help out in every which way and act as a bridge between the drivers and the traffic sergeants. Our leaders have made it clear to the drivers that misbehaviour with passengers won’t be tolerated.”
Officially, senior leaders of the Indian National Trinamul Trade Union Congress deny that the party collects subscription from auto drivers.
“What evidence do you have? Can you show me?” demanded Dola Sen, president of the trade union. “There are some 70,000 autos in and around the city and you won’t find a single instance of INTTUC collecting subscription from them. How many auto drivers have you spoken to? The Left Front had put in place such a system and we have done away with it. I can say this with full conviction,” she said.
Left leaders too strongly contest the open secret that it is their party that perfected the strategy of providing immunity from the law to auto operators in return for allegiance and a token amount.
But Babun Ghosh, district secretary of the Citu Auto Rickshaw Operators’ Union, admitted such a system had been in place. “By 2009, we decided to do away with the concept of ‘line starters’ on some of the very busy routes because they had started minting money. We even removed some corrupt workers who were giving the party a bad name,” Ghosh said.
If so, why does the system continue to thrive? “There is a mutuality of gains among those who are getting protection and those offering it,” sociologist Prasanta Ray said. “Why autos? This is there in different spheres of society.”
In recent months, auto fares have increased by Rs 2-3 on some routes even as the government refuses to allow even a 50-paise hike in bus fares.
“We don’t want to charge extra,” said an auto driver who operates on the Rashbehari-Behala route, where the fare has been raised from Rs 12 to Rs 14. “The unions decided the hike after talking to a few drivers. We had little choice but to listen to them.”
The driver shares Rs 5 from his earnings with the union every day so that he can ply on that route. He will be there at the next big party rally too. He better be.