The Telegraph
Saturday , January 25 , 2014
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Wheels of anarchy on auto-pilot

Streets show, statistics hide

Official: Calcutta and its adjoining areas have at least 32,000 autos.

Actual: Calcutta and its adjoining areas have at least 62,000 autos.

Official: The public vehicles department has notified 125 auto routes.

Actual: Calcutta has more than 180 auto routes.

The gulf between reality and government records is disturbing evidence of how three-wheelers have multiplied in Calcutta in violation of norms.

After retired engineer Ashutosh Sengupta was fatally knocked down by an auto at Ganguly Bagan on Wednesday, police “discovered” that the vehicle did not have a permit to ply and the driver wasn’t licensed either.

The driver, Anjan Rai, isn’t the only one in business without an auto permit and a driving licence. There are thousands like him waiting to be “discovered” by the cops.

“Calcutta has around 11,000 autos plying on 125 sanctioned routes,” said an official of the public vehicles department (PVD), Beltala.

Autos registered with the regional transport offices in Alipore, Barrackpore, Barasat and Howrah make up the rest of the legal fleet.

In 2012, Lalbazar had pegged the number of legal autos plying in and around the city at 32,000. The number could not have gone up since because the PVD “has not issued permits post-2009”, according to an official at Beltala.

A senior traffic police officer said: “The government issues an offer letter for a particular route to a prospective auto driver after taking stock of the fleet strength on that route. This letter entitles the driver to a permit. With this permit, he goes to financial institutions for a loan, buys an auto and then gets it registered.”

If the authorities had followed this system without exception, there would be no illegal auto in this city. But sources in the PVD said that in 2009 a large number of autos were allegedly registered despite not having permits to ply. “In some cases, the fee was collected and receipts given to the applicants, but the permits weren’t issued. We are checking the records to find out how these autos were registered and whether the receipts are legal,” a PVD official said.

Worse, thousands of autos allegedly ply in the city with fake registration plates. “There have been several instances of two autos with the same registration number being caught plying in different parts of the city,” said Col. Sabyasachi Bagchi, deputy chairman of the PVD. “Even the police are not sure about the number of such autos.”

According to auto operators, during the conversion of the auto fleet to LPG, many drivers retained the number plates of their old vehicles to use them on their new ones.

Even if the registration is bona fide, can an auto without a permit ply? “Going by the rule book, such a vehicle can’t be allowed on the road,” said a senior traffic police officer. “A vehicle without a permit is liable for penalty under Section 192 (A) of the MV Act.”

This is where the auto unions come in. Over the years, auto unions have played the pivotal role in “inducting” new vehicles into routes. “An auto union wields enormous power,” said a driver on the Jorabagan-Ultadanga route, where 375 autos ply.

“If a traffic sergeant slaps a heavy fine on anyone, the union leaders negotiate. The leaders decide fares and even have a say in how much share of the earnings an auto owner should get from his driver.”

Conversations with auto drivers revealed that 35-40 per cent of them don’t even hold a driving licence. They said auto unions charge them between Rs 400 and Rs 500 a month for immunity from a police crackdown.

Many of those with lapsed driving licences don’t apply for renewal because they are confident the police won’t touch them.

Over the years, the number of illegal routes has increased too. In most cases, these are shorter off-shoots of the notified routes.

Minister promise

Transport minister Madan Mitra on Friday said high-security registration plates would be made mandatory for all autos along with drivers in uniform.