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Taxis back but threat of fresh strike looms

• The Left unions want the Rs 3,000 fine for passenger refusal scrapped

• Taxi owners want the minimum fare to be raised from Rs 25 to Rs 35

• Police say they are following the rule book in slapping fines

• Government says fines will continue

Taxis were back on the roads after two days on Wednesday but the stand-off that had led to the strike seemed to worsen with neither side ready to budge.

The Left trade unions that had spearheaded the strike threatened to take to the streets again “within three to four days” while the government insisted there was no scope for further dialogue after their inconclusive meeting with transport minister Madan Mitra.

For the commuter, who either has to bear with the shenanigans of taxi drivers or bear the brunt of their strike, it will be hardly comforting to know that the battle of attrition could resume after a break for the Independence Day weekend.

“We didn’t get any assurance from the government on whether it will look into our demand to stop police excesses on taxi drivers in the guise of collecting fines,” said Subhas Mukherjee of the Citu-affiliated taxi drivers’ union. “The meeting didn’t address some of the key concerns of taxi drivers. We will wait for three-four days before arriving at a decision.”

The government had gone into the meeting prepared to counter every salvo. Minister Mitra’s team included the transport secretary, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, the director of the public vehicles department, C. Murugan, the special police commissioner (traffic), Soumen Mitra, and the deputy commissioner of traffic police, V. Solomon Nesakumar.

The police produced copies of some of the cases against taxi drivers as proof that the fine of Rs 3,000 for refusal of passengers had been imposed in accordance with the law.

“More than 1,000 cases have been filed against taxi drivers. In accordance with the provisions of the West Bengal Motor Vehicles Rules, both the complainant and the driver concerned in each case were heard before the decision to impose a fine was arrived at,” a senior police officer said after the meeting.

The riposte came in the face of allegations by Citu that the police were not following norms while slapping fines.

The Citu leaders raised questions about the legality of the fine but did not touch on the topic that appears to be at the root of the problem: an unrealistic fare structure that often compels taxi drivers to refuse passengers.

A Metro investigation over the past two weeks revealed that the longer a taxi driver travels without a passenger, his income dwindles. That is the reason why most taxi drivers aim to go to destinations from where they are certain about getting passengers for the return journey.

Many drivers who returned to work on Wednesday said they had little choice but to refuse passengers, especially after dusk, in the absence of a night surcharge.

“Today’s discussion should have been on ways to resolve the crisis, one of which is to increase fares or allow drivers to charge a night allowance,” Ramen Pandey, state president of Intuc, said.

A section of those who attended the meeting claimed that minister Mitra had promised last evening to look into their demand for some leniency in penalties for passenger refusal.

Mitra maintained that there was no reason for the government to bow to the demands of taxi drivers and trade unions.

“Let it be clear to everyone that passenger refusal needs to stop. We have told the unions that no fine has been slapped without proper verification,” he said.

“We have also informed the Left unions that the provision for a fine of Rs 3,000 was introduced by the previous government and that we were merely following it.”

None of the unions was willing to admit it but the buzz after the meeting was that most of them were awaiting the proposed three-day bus-strike from August 20 as an opportunity to latch on and add steam to the taxi protest.