C. Matthew, a Jesuit priest from Kerala, stepped out of Howrah station, for the first time in his life, at 10.10 pm. The pre-paid taxi service had downed shutters a few minutes ago and so it was left to the cabbies on the lookout for ‘victims’ to give Matthew the first taste of Calcutta’s famed hospitality.
Matthew had to go to the YMCA hostel on Vivekananda Road, a distance of less than five km from the station. He was asked to pay Rs 150 for the journey, that should have cost around Rs 35.
Matthew initially resisted. “Baith ja, ek sau challis de dena (Get in, pay Rs 140),” the driver (of taxi no. WB-04/2490) called out. With no policeman in sight, the first-time visitor from Kerala toed the truant taxi line.
After the giant clock at the station strikes 10, taking a taxi from Howrah can be a real horror story. The taunts soon turn to terror tactics as taxi drivers bully hapless newcomers — and even residents compelled to take a cab — into coughing up absurd rates.
Bargaining is the best one can do. But with other forms of public transport scarce at that hour, the cabbies are confident of coming out on top.
Take the case of Ajay Lamba, who came from Purulia and was headed for Santoshpur. The driver started by demanding Rs 600, before finally settling for Rs 150 plus Rs 50 for each piece of luggage (there were five).
The last suburban train is scheduled to reach Howrah at 12.35 am. With buses going off the road by 11 pm, it’s the rogue taxi driver that remains the only transport link to the city.
There is worse in store for the long-distance passengers, as a steady stream of express and mail trains arrive between 10 pm and 6 am — some scheduled, others invariably delayed —when the pre-paid counters are shut.
Who is to blame for the plight of the passengers' They, not us, is the common answer from various pockets of station administration. Superintendent of Railway Police (Howrah) Sunil Kumar Mallick admitted that “some” drivers take passengers for a ride, charging exorbitant rates. “But it is the company (Hooghly River Jalapath Paribahan) that closes the counters at 10 pm and we do not have any say in that,” he added.
Hooghly River Jalapath Paribahan chairman Lagan Deo Singh refused to “take responsibility for what happens” after the pre-paid counters are closed.
“It is the police that should be checking illegal activities at the pre-paid stands,” he said, asserting that the organisation could “definitely” run the taxi service through the night only if the cops asked it to. “If the solution to the problem is a letter from me, I will immediately send it,” assured Mallick.
But till a change does come about, the Mrinal Das method could remain the most effective. Das, who arrived by the same train as Matthew, promptly agreed to the absurd demand for Rs 100 for a drop to Liluah.
“It’s their turf, no use arguing here,” he said. “But once in my neighbourhood, I will see how they extract the money.”