Cycle rickshaw pullers protest outside the Balurghat municipality on Wednesday. Picture by Mithun Roy
Balurghat, July 9: Over 500 cycle rickshaws today converged outside Balurghat municipality and choked traffic as their operators protested the competition from battery-operated three-wheelers on the road.
The three-wheelers, called Totos, run in many other parts of Bengal such as Behrampore, Durgapur and Asansol and they do not need a licence to ply.
In some municipal areas such as Durgapur, Toto drivers need to register with the civic body but they don’t have to obtain a licence to run the vehicle. In Balurghat, according to the municipality vice-chairman, such registration is also not required. Travelling by Totos is cheaper than in a cycle rickshaw, which has made it the favoured conveyance option in the town, where cycle rickshaws ruled the roost earlier. As the vehicles are battery-operated, they emit no smoke and are environment friendly. Autorickshaw and cycle rickshaw operators in other parts of Bengal, too, are upset with the good run of the Totos.
It is the pricing and lack of regulations for Totos that had cycle rickshaw operators up in arms today in Balurghat. For over an hour today from noon, the cycle rickshaws kept a busy four-point intersection near Balurghat municipality blocked, throwing life out of gear.
“We have started facing a lot of problems after Totos were introduced in Balurghat. We cannot compete with them as they can take passengers at a relatively low rate than us. Earlier, we used to earn Rs 250-300 a day. After the introduction of Totos, our earnings have come down to about Rs 50 a day. We have licences given by the civic body authority and we pay taxes but the Totos don’t have to pay any taxes and neither do they need a license to ply,” said Sukesh Barman, a cycle rickshaw puller.
|Battery-operated totos in Balurghat. Picture by
“We have come to the civic body to protest the attitude of the municipality. They must stop Totos from plying in Balurghat immediately. Otherwise, we will start a wider movement. Today, we came here with 500 rickshaw pullers, later we will get more people to protest,” he added.
The rickshaw pullers said they were not part of any transport union.
According to a source in the municipality, there are around 6,000 cycle rickshaws in Balurghat, and of them, 3,500 have licences to run the vehicles. There are around 30 Totos in the town. For a trip from the centre of Balurghat town to the railway station — a distance of around 4km — a rickshaw puller charges Rs 30, but a Toto charges Rs 5. Autorickshaws, the other means of conveyance in this town, charge Rs 7.
While autorickshaws also charge more in Balurghat, the fuel-fed three-wheelers do not ply everywhere. There are fixed routes for them. But not so for rickshaws and Totos, bringing them in direct competition.
In a bigger town such as Durgapur, Totos are seen as stiff competition to the autorickshaw.
Santanu Som, the chief of the Trinamul-backed Durgapur CNG Auto Operators’ Association, said: “Earnings are already bad for us. On top of that, there is the competition from Totos. For a 7km ride, while a full auto would ply for Rs 170, the Toto would charge Rs 100.”
The debate on whether unlicensed Totos should be allowed to ply has reached Calcutta High Court.
A division bench of the high court, headed by then Chief Justice A.K. Mishra, had passed an interim order in June asking the district administrations of Howrah and Hooghly not to allow battery-operated Totos to ply between Bally in Howrah and Rishra in Hooghly till further orders.
A Serampore-based teacher had moved a PIL saying that since there was no provision in the motor vehicles rules to give permits to any battery-operated vehicle, they were unregulated. Only after getting licences, should the vehicles have the right to ply.
Rajen Shil, the vice-chairman of Balurghat municipality, asked about giving civic permits to Toto drivers, said: “We do not give licence to any Toto. The (state) administration has to look into the matter. As the matter is sub-judice, I can’t comment on the issue. But I must say that any undisciplined movement (of vehicles) will not be allowed in the town. We are trying to identify the unlicensed rickshaws in the town and restructure the fares for them shortly.”
An exasperated Balurghat resident, Ranotosh Malakar, said today: “I was going to the SBI located beside the municipality. When I reached there, hundreds of cycle rickshaws and their pullers had blocked the way. There are colleges, banks, libraries and other important offices in the locality and the blockade made it very difficult for us to reach our destinations.”
But one of the residents made it clear that she preferred Totos over cycle rickshaws. Schoolteacher Tapasi Kar said: “I prefer to take a Toto instead of a cycle rickshaw as the fare is much less and I reach the destination faster. Cycle rickshaws don’t have a fixed fare and the pullers often argue with passengers.”