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Bus strike off, stand-off on

Private bus operators have postponed their proposed 72-hour strike from Wednesday until Mamata Banerjee’s return from Singapore, the decision coming as a face-saver for the government but doing little to end the stand-off over bus fares.

The announcement came a day after Trinamul leader Mukul Roy assured the bus operators that the chief minister would give them a hearing on her return this weekend.

While Roy’s word clinched the deal, uncertainty remained over whether the government would take a decision or dither on raising fares ahead of the festive season.

Sources at Nabanna, the state secretariat, couldn’t say if chief minister Mamata’s packed schedule would allow for a meeting with representatives of the bus unions immediately after her return from Singapore. Her schedule for the next week has been drawn up and a meeting on bus fares is not on the list, they said.

Bus operators said they would meet in the first week of September to decide the course of their agitation if the government didn’t give them a fair deal.

“There would be no going back then,” said Tapan Bandopadhyay of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates, the largest organisation of private bus operators in Bengal. “It’s not that we have agreed to shun the strike path. We have merely deferred our strike. (Mukul) Roy has assured us (of a meeting with Mamata) and we have decided to respect his word.”

Had the bus operators stuck to their decision to go on strike on Wednesday, around 5,500 buses would have gone off the roads for three days, leaving the government with the impossible task of keeping public transport on track with barely 1,200-odd buses.

Sources in the transport department said they weren’t sure if the impasse over fares would end anytime soon. The committee on bus fares headed by Partha Chatterjee, the state’s education minister, has apparently come out with a proposal but the government is unlikely to tax commuters with a significant fare hike ahead of Durga Puja, they said.

“The committee has submitted its report. Now everything depends on the chief minister,” said a senior official of the transport department on the panel.

The committee has apparently endorsed what another panel before it had found during a survey: that running buses has become costlier by 25 per cent since fares were last raised. “The panel has proposed a fare hike commensurate with the increase in operational costs,” a source said.

Bus operators have demanded that the minimum fare be raised from Rs 5 to Rs 8 for the first 4km. For JNNURM buses, the bus unions have pegged the minimum fare at Rs 10 for the first 2km, an increase of Rs 5.