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Meter ticks on govt after contempt plea

A contempt petition has been filed in Calcutta High Court against chief secretary Sanjay Mitra for the government’s failure to implement a 2013 directive to introduce metered autorickshaw fares in the city.

Advocate Rama Prasad Sarkar’s petition, filed on Monday, names transport secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay along with Bengal’s top bureaucrat as the respondents. It is likely to come up for hearing on Thursday, sources in the high court said.

The division bench of Chief Justice Arun Mishra and Justice Joymalya Bagchi had asked the state government to fix metered fares for autos within three months of the March 8 order and file a compliance report. Like all previous court directives on autos, the government sat on this one too.

“Let the state government take adequate steps to prescribe the fare and also take responsibility to ensure that autorickshaws are run with meters within a period of three months from today. Let a compliance report be filed by the state government within a period of three months from date,” the division bench had said in its 2013 order.

“Autorickshaws, if permitted to run without a metering/calibration system, would render the mandate of approved fare structure a mockery and travesty of justice,” it added.

Governments past and present have, of course, always tried to shield autos from stringent checks. The erstwhile Left Front government had gone to the extent of amending rules to allow autos to run without meters.

The West Bengal Motor Vehicles Rules, 1989, used to have a clause stating that the driver of an auto shall charge fares “as per meter attached”. In December 2003, the then Left Front government amended the rules and introduced a special provision for autos. Post-amendment, the rules said “there shall be no metering system in autorickshaws”.

The Central Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 states that all “motorcabs” — autos are in this category of commercial vehicles — should have meters to calculate fares.

According to the Act, motorcabs are vehicles that carry less than six passengers. The West Bengal Motor Vehicles Rules list autos as motorcabs.

In its order last March, the division bench had said that the West Bengal Motor Vehicles Rules must yield to the central act and make fare meters mandatory on autos. The judges mentioned that it was a passenger’s right to know whether he or she was paying the right fare for a ride.

“One wonders how a passenger would be aware that he/she is charged fare at an approved rate… if the metering system is done away with…” the bench said.

Transport minister Madan Mitra, who has been issuing warnings and promising a crackdown on rogue auto drivers over the past month, denied that the government had ignored the high court’s directive. “We have no intention of disobeying the court’s order. But if we want to implement the order, it may lead to law and order trouble,” he said.

Threat to law and order has been the pet excuse of governments to stay away from implementing tough decisions on autos. The Left had cited the same reason for its failure to phase out all two-stroke autos by December 31, 2008. The erstwhile Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government sought seven more months to complete the task.

the buck

The then advocate-general, Balai Ray, had spoken of resistance, violence and widespread resentment over the ban on polluting two-stroke autos. The court countered it by pointing out that such bans had been enforced in various parts of the country. “Even in those places the governments faced law and order issues. Your government could have taken a lesson from those instances,” it said.

Officials of the transport department said there was lack of clarity in the matter and the government would ask for “a clear order” if the contempt petition came up for hearing on Thursday.

“In May 2013, we had filed an application with the high court seeking an exact directive on autos,” said Pantu Debnath, the lawyer representing the transport department. “This was because two separate benches of the high court had passed contradictory orders on autos.”

Sources in the transport department said that in March 2010, the then Chief Justice Mohit S. Shah and Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghosh had accepted the government’s argument for not using meters to calculate auto fares.

This was while turning down a plea from the Calcutta Auto Rickshaw Owners’ Association, which had challenged an amendment to the West Bengal Motor Vehicles Rules. The amendment stated that the government would fix fares and any complaint of overcharging would result in the cancellation of an autorickshaw operator’s permit.

fare fight

March 8, 2013: Court asks state government to introduce metered fares for autos
within three months and file compliance report

June 8: Deadline ends with little effort from the state government to implement division bench’s directive

February 3, 2014: Contempt petition filed against chief secretary and transport secretary for failing to implement court’s order

February 6: Contempt petition likely to come up for hearing