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CM away, bus strike at bay

The government is banking on Mamata Banerjee’s Singapore trip to stall the three-day bus strike from Wednesday even as the taxi drivers’ agitation vacillates between confrontation and compromise.

Representatives of six bus operators’ unions went into a huddle on Monday afternoon to decide whether to hold fire till chief minister Mamata’s return while leaders of the Left-affiliated trade unions were exhorting taxi drivers to go big with their campaign against penalties for passenger refusal.

But the fear of total transport paralysis through the week eased somewhat after the taxi unions stopped short of threatening to merge their agitation with that of bus operators demanding a hike in fares.

The taxi rally at Esplanade wasn’t as large as the ones last week, possibly because many drivers didn’t want to lose another’s day’s earnings in the name of an agitation. “I have to feed a family of five. I have already lost three days’ earnings and I could not have afforded the luxury of joining a weekday rally again,” said driver Rakesh Jha, who earns Rs 250 on an average for 12 hours of driving.

Taxis were hard to find through the day and even fewer in the afternoon when the rally was underway, but they didn’t disappear from the roads like on the previous three occasions. Many taxis were spotted with “garage” signs on their windshields lest they be targeted for not attending the rally. Some flaunted red union flags to get past potential hurdles.

Police arrested two persons, identified as Sheikh Mansoor and Swarup Sarkar, for stopping a taxi and allegedly assaulting the driver at Kadamtala in Thakurpukur.

The consensus at the two-hour bus operators’ meeting was to proceed with the proposed strike from Wednesday, using Tuesday to continue negotiations with the government.

“If the government is really keen on ensuring that there is no bus strike, let it come up with a date on which a new fare structure will take effect. Why doesn’t it say so by Tuesday?” demanded Tapan Bandopadhyay of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates, the largest body of private bus operators. “The wait for a decision seems indefinite…. We have been pushed to the wall.”

The bus operators had a meeting with Trinamul general secretary Mukul Roy late on Monday, the second in as many days. Roy tried to convince them that their demand for a fare hike would be taken up with chief minister Mamata as soon as she returned from Singapore.

“Roy assured us of a meeting with the chief minister. We will take a call on Tuesday,” Bandopadhyay said after the meeting.

The former union minister had met leaders of the bus operators’ unions on Sunday with the same request, saying they should not go on strike until Mamata returned. The bus operators apparently told him they would get back to him with a decision on Monday.

“The price of diesel has been increased 23 times since bus fares were last revised in 2012. The government has been dragging its feet endlessly on this although the number of buses on the roads are dwindling by the day,” said a senior member of the Bengal Bus Syndicate, the Trinamul-backed bus operators’ union.

If the bus operators stick to their decision, around 5,500 buses will go off the roads for three days from Wednesday, leaving the government with the impossible task of keeping public transport on track with barely 1,200-odd buses.

Transport minister Madan Mitra, who has had several rounds of inconclusive talks with the bus operators, said: “Their decision to go on strike when the chief minister is visiting Singapore to bring investment is sad.”

He warned that talks on bus fares would suffer a setback if the strike wasn’t called off.