Taxi drivers block traffic at the Dorina crossing in central Calcutta on Thursday afternoon. Picture by Pradip Sanyal
Taxis disappeared from the roads and more than 5,000 drivers stalled traffic in the heart of the city on Thursday in protest against stronger penalties for offences that would hardly invite a reprimand until recently.
The afternoon of disruption had started with members of the Citu-affiliated drivers’ union converging on the Esplanade crossing around 1pm for a procession till College Square. The rally soon snowballed into a show of unity cutting across political lines.
Members of several other unions, including those affiliated to the All India Trade Union Congress, the All India Central Council of Trade Unions, the Indian National Trinamul Trade Union Congress and the BJP, joined in to turn an isolated protest into a unified campaign against the crackdown on taxi indiscipline.
If taxis going on strike on a weekday wasn’t enough harassment, commuters had to contend with snarls for hours as the demonstration brought the city centre to a standstill from 1pm till 4.30pm. The taxi drivers first squatted at the Dorina crossing and later at the Esplanade East-Lenin Sarani crossing.
When persuasion failed, the police caned the protesters. By then, the drivers had damaged some taxis for not supporting their cause, assaulted motorcyclists trying to bypass the blockade and damaged the windshields of some buses when the police tried to clear the road for traffic.
“Cops in plainclothes pose as passengers to catch us unawares. If we refuse to take them where they want to go, they slap a fine of Rs 3,000. Even when we aren’t guilty, they threaten to slap cases and ask for a bribe of about Rs 250,” said Akhilesh Kumar Singh, who was among the protesters.
After years of imposing token fines for taxi refusal, the public vehicles department and the police recently started fining drivers Rs 3,000 for each offence. The PVD last month cancelled the permits of 40 taxis after the owners did not respond to summons to attend hearings.
The turnout of protesters on Thursday took even the organisers by surprise. The Citu-affiliated drivers’ union had decided last week to go on strike for a day but didn’t officially seek any another union’s support.
“We didn’t expect such a gathering. Some other unions joined in and the rally grew in numbers,” said Subhas Mukherjee of Citu. “Some drivers carrying BJP flags were there too, although no member of the party’s trade wing was there. The protest should make the government sit up and take note of the discontent that’s brewing among taxi drivers.”
Senior officials at Lalbazar, the headquarters of Calcutta police, said they hadn’t prepared for such a protest because there was no intelligence report from the special branch about the possibility of a huge turnout.
Lalbazar’s failure to deploy a police contingent large enough to keep the protesters in check allowed a section of the taxi drivers to run amok.
In pockets of Entally, Esplanade and even Central Avenue, some of the protesters stopped taxis that were plying and deflated the tyres in front of the police.
After nearly three hours of disruption, by which time some of the drivers were standing atop taxis and buses parked on roads and shouting slogans against the government, the police resorted to a lathicharge that finally ended the siege.
The belated crackdown did little to ease the woes of commuters inside buses and private vehicles stranded for hours on JL Nehru Road, SN Banerjee Road, Esplanade East Road and CR Avenue.
“I had a meeting to attend at 2pm and here I am, stuck in a traffic snarl that won’t ease anytime soon. I cancelled the meeting and tried to reschedule it next week, although my client wasn’t amused,” said Jatin Agarwal, who runs a leather exports firm near Girish Park.
He was in his Hyundai Accent, stuck in the snarl on JL Nehru Road at 3.15pm.
Madhumoni Dasgupta was on her way to New Market but turned back because of the protest. “The Park Street flyover was blocked and once my car reached the Esplanade crossing, it was diverted towards Red Road. Cars weren’t allowed to proceed towards New Market,” said the homemaker.
Transport minister Madan Mitra declared that the government would not buckle under pressure. “The government will not budge. The drivers want refusal of passengers to be legitimised and we can’t allow that to happen,” he told Metro. “There appears to be some conspiracy. The police have been asked to take legal action against those who were part of the violence on the streets.”
But how did the strength of the rally keep growing? “It was a well-planned move that most of the taxi owners had no clue about,” said Bimal Guha of the Bengal Taxi Association. “Some taxi owners were taken aback when their drivers didn’t turn up for duty in the morning. Gradually, it dawned on us that they had joined the protest.”
Insiders said that by mid-afternoon, many drivers owning allegiance to the Trinamul-backed Progressive Taximen’s Union and the Bengal Taxi Association had quietly gone off duty. “The uniting factor was the police’s decision to slap fines on drivers instead of the owners,” said a leader of the Progressive Taximen’s Union.