A Left-called taxi strike that the government had declared a non-starter grounded the entire yellow fleet on Thursday, inconveniencing commuters and embarrassing an administration that failed to foresee a common economic cause bridging the great political divide.
The strike to demand a revision of the fare structure had been called by the Left-affiliated Bengal Taxi Association (BTA), whose influence is limited to about 18,000 of the 30,000-odd taxis plying in and around the city. But the absence of taxis across the city — including the airport, Sealdah and Howrah railway stations, Esplanade and the Trinamul strongholds of south Calcutta — proved that this was a strike beyond politics.
“If fares aren’t raised, many of us would be out of business….Earning Rs 100 to Rs 200 a day has become difficult,” said a driver owing allegiance to the Calcutta Taxi Association, which officially didn’t participate in the strike.
Taxi operators explained — and transport department officials corroborated — how business had been bleeding because of serial fuel-price hikes and the government’s refusal to allow fares to be raised.
The price of a litre of diesel in Calcutta is currently Rs 43.74, around 16 per cent higher than a taxi’s fuel cost per litre when fares were last raised in 2009. Operators have been demanding a minimum fare of Rs 30 — it has been Rs 22 for the past three years — and a negotiable increase in the fare for every kilometre thereafter, which currently stands at Rs 10.
Transport minister Madan Mitra blamed the impact of Thursday’s strike on public transport in the city on “a substantial number of mischievous operators”.
So would he bow to the demand for a fare hike before the next strike? “Let the taxi operators call as many strikes as they want. The government is firm in its stand and will not succumb to their juvenile pressure tactics. If they continue to take the strike route, we will recall their permits and distribute them to needy, unemployed youths, who would put them to better use,” he told Metro.
Leaders of the Progressive Taximen’s Union, of which Mitra is the president, accused Citu of using muscle to create the impression that all taxi operators were part of the strike.
“We ensured taxi services were available at the airport and Sealdah and Howrah stations till around 9am, when members of Citu started terrorising our members by deflating tyres and threatening to smash the windscreens of their vehicles,” said Prabir Das Mahapatra, the secretary of the Progressive Taximen’s Union.
For commuters, it was a no-win situation either way. “On normal days, taxis with rigged meters fleece us. Today, we are being forced to pay exorbitant fares to private car operators,” said a doctor who returned to the city from Delhi by an afternoon flight.
Police were seen guiding passengers with prepaid slips to the few taxis that were on duty, but such was the shortage that nobody escaped without paying extra. S.K. Dube, a Bangalore-based businessman, arrived in the city around 8.30am and was guided to a taxi. Once he got in and the cop walked away, the driver demanded more than the prepaid fare.
“He asked for Rs 100 more and there was little I could do about it, given the dearth of taxis,” Dube said.
The prepaid taxi counter at the international terminal was closed through the day. At the domestic terminal, the booth was open in the morning but had to be shut in the afternoon.
Private car operators then made a killing. The rates were Rs 400 for a trip to Ultadanga and Rs 1,200 to Tollygunge, which is five to six times higher than normal.
The fleet of air-conditioned Volvo buses was the only saviour for many.
At Howrah station, a handful of taxi drivers demanded eight to 10 times the normal fares. Among the many who suffered was Lalima Lahiri, 40, who had come from Janai by the Burdwan local around 1pm with her 89-year-old grandmother Mahamaya Mukherjee to consult a doctor at SSKM Hospital.
“We were shocked to find taxis demanding several hundred rupees for a ride to SSKM. How can people like us afford such fares?” Lalima demanded.
Minister Mitra claimed the government had arranged for over 350 additional state-run buses to counter the taxi shortage on Thursday.