Passengers in the empty taxi bay at Howrah railway station on Thursday.
Picture by Pradip Sanyal
The police crackdown that had struck fear into taxi drivers seems to have eased, a change acknowledged by many cabbies who have suddenly found the cops lenient towards violations they would have pounced on two weeks ago.
At least 30 taxi drivers that Metro spoke to over the past two days said they felt that the police had taken their feet off the pedal, if not slammed the brakes on high penalties for offences like refusal of passengers.
“On Saturday night, a sergeant fined me Rs 100 rather than Rs 3,000 for refusing to ferry a passenger who wanted to go to Salt Lake,” said cabbie Arjun Shaw.
According to one estimate, the number of cases registered or penalties imposed over the past two weeks could be less than 100, a sharp drop from around 1,500 cases between mid-July and mid-August.
Sources in one traffic police guard that had fined 30-odd taxi drivers in July said the figure for August was a fraction of that.
A traffic sergeant said more than 30 per cent of the taxi fleet had gone off the roads in the face of the police crackdown. “We were told to take it easy so that commuters were not harassed by the shortage of taxis. We also needed to ensure that there was no major protest over the police action,” he said.
Taxis didn’t ply again on Thursday but the anger among drivers that was in evidence during the protests since last month seems to have ebbed. The cry against “police excesses” has been replaced by the demand for a fare hike.
Thursday’s rally, scheduled from 2pm, started 45 minutes late because the union leaders were apparently waiting for more participants to turn up. Only about 1,200 did, far fewer than at previous rallies.
Taxi driver Shaw was among the crowd that included Left leaders like former transport minister Shyamal Chakraborty and former labour minister Anadi Sahoo.
A clutch of Left trade unions, led by Citu, set September 2 as the deadline for the government to take a call on raising taxi fares. They threatened an indefinite taxi strike from September 3 if the government didn’t agree to meet them by then.
A section of trade union leaders tried to bring other transport operators — buses, autorickshaws and goods vans — on board for the proposed strike.
“The government can’t refuse to listen to us. It must wake up to the demands of thousands of taxi drivers and address their demands,” Citu leader Subhas Mukherjee said. “The police have arrested drivers for participating in a rally, something that is their democratic right.”
But Mukherjee admitted that the police had become “lenient to an extent”.
“It’s true,” he had told Metro on Wednesday. “But that is because of our agitation. We want a hearing before imposing any fine for a violation and the amount should not be more than Rs 100.”
The fine for refusing passengers is Rs 3,000 each.
Sources said there was a possibility of the government reviewing the penalty, though nobody could say for certain if it would consider demands made by the trade unions on behalf of taxi drivers.
Transport minister Madan Mitra, who is in hospital with respiratory distress, had said after a meeting with taxi unions on August 13 that there wouldn’t be any compromise.
“Let it be clear to everyone that refusal of passengers needs to stop. We have told the unions that no fine has been slapped without proper verification…We 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.”
Commuters who routinely have to deal with rogue drivers fear that cabbies will be back to their old ways if the police don’t keep up the pressure. The worst-case scenario is of the Rs 3,000 fine being phased out, giving them back the licence to do as they please.
“If the police stop imposing hefty fines on taxi drivers, they will have nothing to fear. The menace of passenger refusal will surely increase,” said Soumyadeep Bandopadhyay, an IT professional who lives off Amherst Street.
On Thursday, at least five taxis were damaged in south Calcutta and three taxi drivers carrying passengers were pulled out of their vehicles and heckled for defying the rally diktat.