The Telegraph
Saturday , March 15 , 2014
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Lawless auto driver shows do-gooder side

Barasat auto driver Biswajit Biswas returned a bagful of cash to a woman passenger who had left it on the back seat of his auto but has no qualms about illegally carrying five passengers. Picture by Anup Bhattacharya

He doesn’t carry a driving licence and has never bothered asking his employer for the blue book. Five passengers are the norm on his autorickshaw. And traffic rules? What traffic rules?

But Biswajit Biswas, 31, is not your everyday rogue auto driver ready to fight with you for that extra rupee. When he found a bagful of cash left behind by a passenger one day, he didn’t think twice about skipping lunch and forgoing a few trips to locate the owner and return the money.

Biswajit, a school dropout who earns around Rs 250 a day, is a dichotomy in an institutionalised system of auto lawlessness that sucks everyone into it. He has been an auto driver in Barasat, about 30km from Calcutta, for five years and this is how he has seen the system function.

“All of us on this route carry five or more passengers. We know it’s illegal but that’s about it,” Biswajit, who makes 13 to 14 trips between Kazipara on Taki Road and Champadali More every day, told Metro.

He pays the auto owner Rs 300 at the end of the day, more than what he gets to keep.

On January 27, Biswajit found a woman’s handbag on the rear seat of his auto after returning home for lunch. In the bag was Rs 74,000 in cash, wrapped in a piece of white cloth.

The auto driver immediately showed what he had found to his wife and parents. Minutes later, he was back at the Champadali auto stand, around 4km from his home, to wait for a claimant to arrive.

“There was only one woman passenger on my last trip and I somehow remembered her face,” Biswajit said, who waited at the stand for more than half an hour.

He had skipped five trips when he spotted the woman approaching the auto stand, worried as anyone else in her place would have been. Jhuma Chowdhury had sold gold jewellery to finance her daughter’s wedding.

The story of a poor but honest man would have ended there but for Biswajit’s background as an auto driver, a nomenclature more often than not discussed for the wrong reasons.

The Class VII dropout became an auto driver after his fishery business bombed five years ago. Biswajit said he had to sell his house to organise his sister’s wedding and now lives in a rented thatched hut with his parents and pregnant wife.

Since his father lost a leg in an accident last year, he has been the lone breadwinner.

“I could have kept the bag but it never crossed my mind. My wife scolded me for coming home with the bag and asked me to go back to the stand immediately,” the auto driver recalled.

So why is Biswajit still not the man of ideals he professes to be?

“The maximum fare on our route is Rs 4. To make each trip viable we have to take five passengers, which we do with our union leaders’ blessings. They advise us not to carry the blue book and driving licence, lest the police seize them during a sudden raid,” he said.

His licence expires in two months but Biswajit can be relied on to keep ferrying passengers whether he renews it or not.

Sociologist Prasanta Ray blames peer groups and protection for someone like Biswajit seeing no wrong in being lawless. “He seems to be an honest man. He is possibly an ethical person, though not a law-abiding one,” he said.

For Jhuma, who got her money back, that would hardly matter.

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