Stranded passengers outside the deserted prepaid taxi booth at Howrah station; (right) police try to disperse a crowd of taxi drivers outside Bankshall court ahead of the bail hearing of 21 cabbies. Pictures by Sanjoy Chattopadhyaya and Pradip Sanyal
The Mamata Banerjee government on Tuesday warned of a harsher crackdown on agitating taxi drivers amid confusing signals from the trade unions about whether cabs would return to the roads on Wednesday.
Twenty-one of the 22 drivers arrested on August 7 and charged with rioting were granted bail in the afternoon, but some union leaders said it wasn’t enough for them to call off the agitation. One driver had been freed on Monday.
“We have demanded that all false cases against taxi drivers be withdrawn. We have also asked the government to ensure drivers are not harassed with a penalty of Rs 3,000 for refusing passengers. Unless the transport minister meets these demands, how can we say that taxis will run normally from tomorrow?” state Citu president Shyamal Chakraborty said.
His statement contrasted with that of taxi drivers in the crowd that had milled outside Bankshall court an hour ahead of the bail hearing. “We will be back with our taxis tomorrow morning,” said Ramesh Nishad, who had been fined Rs 3,000 last month for refusing a passenger. “But this policy of imposing a fine of Rs 3,000 for an offence like refusing a passenger has to be stopped immediately.”
Taxi unions also want the government to recall the showcause notices slapped on 400-odd drivers for going on strike last Thursday.
The public prosecutor had opposed bail for the 21 drivers arrested in the wake of the mayhem at Esplanade that day, submitting in writing that the police needed more time to find out who else were involved in the violence.
The team of five lawyers representing the drivers opposed the submission, saying that the police had been given enough time to question the arrested drivers. Chief metropolitan magistrate Viswaroop Sett granted bail to the drivers on a surety bond of Rs 500 each. A plea to reduce the bond was turned down.
Leaders of the Left trade unions spearheading the drivers’ “law violation programme” seemed to be split on what to expect of the government. Some felt that now was the opportune moment to mount pressure for a revision of taxi fares. Others feared that any such attempt would backfire.
“The government should ideally increase taxi fares and also implement the 15 per cent night charge that it had promised to introduce in 2012,” said Anadi Sahoo, Citu leader and a former labour minister. “By not increasing bus fares for more than a year, the government has already forced hundreds of bus owners to go off the roads. If it does not increase taxi fares, they will take the same route.”
But the Citu leadership officially avoided a direct reply when asked whether taxi fares should be hiked. “Fare hike is an issue that concerns taxi owners and drivers. Our trade union has nothing to do with that,” state Citu president Chakraborty said.
Transport minister Madan Mitra, who is to meet representatives of six taxi unions on Wednesday, said the crackdown on “passenger refusal” wouldn’t stop. “If taxis aren’t back on the roads tomorrow, drivers will be charged under more stringent sections of the law, if required,” he warned.
Mitra said going on strike and causing disruptions wouldn’t help the taxi drivers’ cause. “If a section of drivers has started believing they can push the government to accept their demands, they are living in a fool’s paradise.”
The minister had previously said he would like to interact with the taxi drivers rather than union representatives, “The interaction is not likely to throw up a surprise. The trade unions have been wanting to meet the transport minister for some time and the meeting will offer them a platform to speak up. That’s it,” a senior official said.
While Mitra read out the riot act, a section of Trinamul workers was spotted advising taxi drivers in pockets of south Calcutta not to take recourse to a flash strike again. In parts of Bhowanipore and Ballygunge, Trinamul supporters went around in no-refusal taxis with party flags, telling drivers that the government had decided not to slap the Rs 3,000 fine for passenger refusal.
In return, they urged all drivers to return to work on Wednesday.