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Taxi ultimatum for case withdrawal

Taxi unions steering the agitation against stiffer penalties for refusing passengers have set terms for a return to normality, their blackmail list including the recall of rioting cases against 22 drivers along with the showcause notices slapped on 400 others.

If the government doesn’t budge by Tuesday morning, the threat is of a third taxi strike in six days.

“When drivers don’t want to resume work, what can we say? It is their call to fight the injustice being meted out by the government,” said Anadi Sahoo, a former labour minister and Citu leader.

Sahoo was among those who attended the rally on Monday that saw more than 3,000 drivers marching down Raja Subodh Mullick Square till Rani Rashmoni Avenue from 2pm. Taxis were off the road since morning, leaving lakhs of commuters hamstrung on the first working day of the week.

The rally in central Calcutta ended with the protesters deciding to reassemble at Bankshall court on Tuesday when the 12 drivers arrested for “rioting” last Thursday are to be produced before a magistrate.

Leaders of the Left-affiliated trade unions claimed they hadn’t called a taxi strike, saying that most drivers had decided not to work of their own volition because they felt let down by the government.

The crackdown on taxi drivers for various offences — the token fine of Rs 100 for refusing a passenger has become a Rs 3,000 hit — comes after decades of the police and the transport authority looking the other way.

The government accused the Left unions of instigating the taxi drivers but appeared wary of a confrontation in the face of threats to prolong the agitation.

“The Left trade unions are indulging in disruptive politics. This won’t do anyone any good,” transport minister Madan Mitra said. “I will be meeting taxi drivers on August 13 (Wednesday) and it’s my appeal to all to stay away from any form of strike.”

Sources said the government wasn’t even thinking of easing the crackdown on rogue drivers, who continue to refuse passengers everywhere and at any time of day.

The initiative to slap a higher fine for passenger refusal had been taken by the public vehicles department. The police were later asked to do the same, apparently after chief minister Mamata Banerjee said she sympathised with commuters being refused by taxi drivers.

“The government’s immediate priority in the transport sector is to work out a revision of the fare structure for buses,” said a senior official at Nabanna, the state secretariat. “Under no circumstance will it buckle under pressure when it comes to taxi drivers.”

The first protest by taxi drivers on August 7 had turned into a disruptive show of strength that brought the city centre to a standstill for more than three hours. A section of drivers smashed the windshields of buses and targeted anyone who tried to bypass their blockade.

The government retaliated the same evening with the arrest of 22 drivers, all of whom were charged with “rioting with deadly weapons” and deterring the police from performing their duty. The transport department simultaneously shot off showcause notices to 400-odd drivers for going on strike in violation of a clause in their taxi permits.

On Monday, the few taxis that plied were targeted for not supporting the agitation. Fear of reprisal could make them join the strike planned for Tuesday. The buzz is that taxi services are unlikely to return to normal even on Wednesday, unless transport minister Mitra achieves a breakthrough.

For a city with dwindling transport options — the bus fleet has already shrunk because of the impasse over fares — a day without taxis on the road is a torture for many.

Ask Jayati Saha, a resident of Salt Lake who arrived at Howrah by the Rajdhani Express on Monday morning to find the taxi stands empty. “There was not a single taxi in any of the stands. I waited more than half an hour before deciding to walk till I found transport. I boarded a bus near the Howrah-end of the bridge and paid extra to the conductor for allowing me to keep my two bags in the driver’s cabin,” she recounted.

Some taxi operators said they had been outnumbered. Others claimed they had become irrelevant because drivers were organising the protests. “Even if the owners are not very keen on keeping their vehicles off the road, they have little choice,” said Bimal Guha of the Bengal Taxi Association. “If our drivers don’t turn up for work, who will take out the taxis?”

The Trinamul-backed unions, including the Progressive Taximen’s Union, wouldn’t admit it but drivers from their ranks have been part of the protests since last Thursday.