|An empty lane in front of the prepaid taxi counter at Howrah railway station on Wednesday. (Pradip Sanyal)
Nearly 20,000 taxi operators owing allegiance to the Trinamul Congress or associations aligned with the ruling party on Wednesday lent their support to a strike called by the Left unions, cocking a snook at the administration that had threatened tough action against those joining the protest.
Officially, nobody would admit it was a strike. But with few taxis on the roads, it was hard to mistake the strike led by the Left unions for anything else.
Since 2011, nearly three-fourths of Calcutta’s taxi brigade has switched allegiance to Trinamul. The Left trade union twins, Citu and the All India Trade Union Congress, now have only a minuscule share of the taxi pie.
Taxis will ply normally on Thursday, Left leaders announced.
“The ruling party holds sway over the majority of taxi stands and unions in this city. Yet, our strike was total. On the issue of taxis, even Trinamul is with the Left,” Citu leader Subhas Mukherjee said.
“The government could do little today to bring taxis out on the roads. We will meet soon to chart our next course of action, a larger movement.”
The clutch of demands behind the taxi strike include the withdrawal of cases of rioting against cabbies and union leaders who had been arrested during a rally last month.
The taxi unions also want the government to do away with the fine of Rs 3,000 for refusing passengers. They are okay with a token fine of Rs 100, as was the practice until the public vehicles department decided to get tough with taxis.
The one factor that seems to have united taxi operators across the political spectrum is the demand for a fare hike.
The minimum taxi fare is currently Rs 25 for the first two kilometres while the waiting charge has been reduced to half of what it was at Rs 1.20 for 2.12 minutes. “Taxi fares would have to be revised and we will get it done,” said Bimal Guha of the Bengal Taxi Association, which has close to 10,000 taxis under its banner. “You don’t have to necessarily talk to the government for a fare hike. There are other recourses, including legal, and we will soon declare our plan.”
The Telegraph had highlighted how running a taxi in Calcutta is no longer viable because of a fare structure that doesn’t take into account the distance a vehicle often travels without a passenger, especially on the return journey. The scare of a “dead run”, as one taxi owner put it, often makes a driver refuse a passenger.
Unlike Delhi and Mumbai, Calcutta doesn’t have a night charge to compensate for the loss a driver might suffer after dropping a passenger at a destination from which the chances of the taxi returning empty are high.
Trinamul-affiliated taxi drivers joining the Left in Wednesday’s strike underscores the reality that the government is trying to overlook — that passenger refusal can’t be tackled with higher fines alone.
Sources said most members of the taxi operators’ association aligned with Trinamul didn’t insist that their drivers defy the strike. Even the few drivers who were out with their taxis called it a day early to be a part of the protest.
Transport minister Madan Mitra, who is known to visit taxi stands on such days, was nowhere to be seen.
In the absence of taxis, commuters struggled to get into overcrowded buses and autorickshaws allegedly charged more than the usual fare on some routes.