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Parked: bounty in boxes

Two policemen assigned to guard the boxes containing sealed bids for the parking lots leased out by the civic body. Picture by Bishwarup Dutta

Nine wooden boxes kept at the Calcutta Municipal Corporation headquarters hold the keys to a fortune with so many claimants that two policemen have been deployed to guard them round-the-clock.

Sealed in those boxes are bids for the control of the city’s parking lots, a lucrative business that had allegedly triggered a ransack of the civic headquarters on SN Banerjee Road last year. The 2013 incident ensured that the co-operatives that had been running the parking lots for years retained the contracts.

Two cops, one of them armed with a pistol, have been requisitioned this year to guard the corridor where the boxes are kept. A week has passed since their deployment but the CMC still doesn’t know when the bids can be opened.

“The last date for submission of bids was March 14. But since Lok Sabha elections have been announced, we have written to the chief electoral officer seeking his permission to open the bids,” municipal commissioner Khalil Ahmed told Metro.

As the wait for the electoral officer’s green signal continues, the civic body is worried of a repeat of last year’s fracas. “Keeping in mind what happened last year, we decided to seek the police’s help in guarding the corridor,” a CMC official said.

A new CCTV camera has been installed in the corridor as a second line of defence.

The norm for about 20 years has been to annually renew the rights of the 29 co-operatives that run the parking lots. It means that on about 1,100 roads across the city where parking is legal, these co-operatives enjoy a monopoly that keeps out potentially more efficient and honest players.

For car owners, the monopoly of the co-operatives translates into unregulated parking rates that they dare not challenge without the risk of being abused. Those manning the parking lots often charge up to five times the legal amount of Rs 10 an hour, denying parking space or even threatening to damage a car if someone protests.

Ratul Basu, who runs a business, knows how it feels to be bullied by a parking lot attendant. When he asked for a receipt against the amount he had been asked to pay for parking his vehicle on Park Street one day, those manning that stretch allegedly threatened to smash his car’s windscreen.

“They demanded Rs 40 for an hour. When I asked for a receipt, one man gave me four chits with Rs 10 printed on them. I told him that if the parking fees was Rs 40, there should be a slip of that denomination and he started intimidating me,” Ratul recalled.

The CMC bosses hope new lessees would force the old players to stop fleecing and misbehaving with car owners.

When the civic body had invited bids last year, the co-operatives that have retained the rights for nearly two decades allegedly sent people to ransack the boxes.

Around 300 locks are used to protect the rooms in the CMC headquarters. A team of 12 guards do duty every night.

Sources said the request for police protection was made because the civic bosses felt more security was required to tackle the “parking mafia”.

The CMC hopes to earn more than double the annual fees it gets from the entrenched co-operatives if the bidding process is successful. The civic body currently earns Rs 8 crore from the parking lots.

“We are aiming to raise about Rs 20 crore from the bids. We have sought police protection at the headquarters because we fear the the boxes containing the bids could be attacked like last year,” said Debasish Kumar, the mayoral council member in charge of the parking portfolio.

Car owners like Ratul hope the attempt to introduce a transparent bidding process would lead to fair parking rates. “The CMC must put up boards at all places mentioning the parking fees per hour. It should also have a helpline where car owners can complain if they have been harassed.”

civic body gets cop cover for parking bids