With the police and the public vehicles department (PVD) bickering over whose job it is to stop the 5,000-plus unauthorised auto-rickshaws flouting every road-rule book, and the government switching from red to green on fresh permits, the three-wheel threat looms larger than ever before on the city streets.
Deputy commissioner (traffic) M.K. Singh is convinced about whose responsibility it is to fix the auto-rickshaw driver. “The PVD is the sole authority to issue permits and licences for every kind of vehicle plying in the city and it is the department that knows which vehicle is plying without a permit,” he declares. “The police, at best, can help the PVD in the exercise… Why should the police take the responsibility of impounding vehicles to which the PVD gives certificates of fitness'” he demands, while promising “security” whenever the PVD launches an anti-auto drive.
PVD officials, meanwhile, pass the three-wheel buck to the traffic police. “We have neither the infrastructure nor the manpower to check vehicles and penalise the ones plying illegally,” says PVD director Prashant. “There are over 800,000 vehicles plying in the city and it is not possible for us to check the ones plying without a permit,” he adds.
But there is unanimity on one score. Both the police and the PVD agree that “political will” is of paramount importance if the errant-auto menace is to be met. The transport department has long made it clear that around 5,000 autos are now plying in the city without permits, but the government has not announced any intention to stop these three-wheelers in their tracks. This tells the story, say officials.
It is here that the party steps on the pedal. With opportunities for employment drying up in the city and the state, officials feel that the CPM — or its labour wing, Citu — does not want to add to the problem by impounding the unlicensed auto-rickshaws. The government would rather regularise the illegal autos than “disturb” them and risk resentment from a powerful lobby.
“We never tell anyone to ply a vehicle illegally, neither do we support the illegal plying of vehicles,” clarifies Citu spokesperson Mrinal Das. “We have, therefore, requested the state transport department to regularise these three-wheelers,” he adds.
Slamming the brakes, however, is a strict no-no. “Where will these thousands of unemployed youths go'” demands Das. “Several thousand families in and around Calcutta depend on these auto-rickshaw for a living.”
But the government’s decision to issue fresh permits has foxed the police. “We have been asking the government for quite some time to branch the autos out into the suburbs,” says deputy commissioner Singh. “And I don’t know what the traffic situation will be like once these new vehicles hit the road.”
Transport minister Subhas Chakraborty, however, feels the autos are a boon. His logic is simple: thousands of Calcuttans use this mode of transport every day. “Autos exist in every metropolis in the world,” he says, while admitting that the autos must share a part of the blame for the road chaos, “as they add to the vehicular numbers”.