A battery-operated toto in Howrah. Picture by Gopal Senapati
Calcutta High Court has slammed the brakes on “toto”, the battery-operated three-wheeler fleet that has become the public transport of choice in parts of Howrah and Hooghly.
A division bench on Friday directed the Howrah and Hooghly district administration to bar the unlicensed totos from ferrying passengers and file a compliance report within 10 days.
The interim order was based on a petition filed by Sudipta Roy of Serampore centring on the legality of the toto, a variation of the tuk-tuk that is popular in many countries.
“Toto cars are plying within Bally in Howrah and Rishra in Hooghly. These vehicles don’t need a licence to ply (because they are battery-operated). But how can a vehicle ferry passengers without a licence?” advocate Jayanta Narayan Chatterjee, representing the petitioner, said.
Chatterjee argued that the question of licensing would automatically arise if any of these vehicles were to be involved in a road accident. “If a vehicle hits and injures a person, how will the police act against it?” he said.
The division bench of Chief Justice A.K. Mishra and Justice Joymalya Bagchi expressed surprise at unlicensed commercial vehicles being allowed to ply in both districts. “How can any vehicle ply without a licence?” Justice Bagchi observed.
The district magistrates of Howrah and Hooghly and the regional transport authority are required to submit a compliance report in court within the next 10 days.
Totos do not have authorised routes. They mostly ply between Bally Khal and Belur Math, Belur Math and Belur station, Shibpur tram depot and Avani Mall and Mullick Fatak and Natun Rasta.
The fare structure — Rs 10 per passenger for the first three stretches and Rs 15 for the last one — is higher than that of autorickshaws on the same routes but significantly lower than that of rickshaws.
“I prefer a toto ride because they are more comfortable than autos and the fare is half that of rickshaws. Before totos started plying between Mullick Fatak and Natun Rasta, I needed to spend Rs 35 on a rickshaw ride. Now I can reach Mullick Fatak paying Rs 15,” said Paltoo Bhattacharya, a resident of Ramrajatala.
He is not the only one to prefer a toto to an auto. “Earlier, I would pick up my son from school and return to Dewan Gazi Road by bus on an auto from Bally Khal. Now I take a toto because the fare is reasonable and the journey is comfortable too,” said Kakoli Chatterjee, a resident of Bally.
Asked whether battery-run vehicles could ply without licences, advocate Sailendu Rakshit said: “The laws have only been framed for motor vehicles that run on fuel. After introduction of eco-friendly or battery-run vehicles, laws will have to modified. Until laws are written for battery-operated vehicles, how can licences be issued to them?”
But Rakshit added: “According to the Motor Vehicles Act, no vehicle can ply without a licence.”
The owner of a battery-operated toto plying in Uttarpara, Hooghly, termed Friday’s interim order unfair. “The court has passed an interim order without hearing us. After 15 days, when the case comes up for hearing, our lawyer will surely satisfy the court that these vehicles are not illegal.”
Petitioner Roy is a schoolteacher. Three similar petitions have already been filed in the same court.