Politics without economic sense
Calcutta, April 3: Calcutta learnt today that decades of autorickshaw politics need not mix with a year of turbulent energy economics.
"Share" autos, the commuter lifeline sired to keep unemployed youth preoccupied and mask shortages in public transport, did not ply on almost 100-plus routes in the city today and their drivers indulged in vandalism to air their grievances, including a sharp hike in fuel prices.
Traffic was held to ransom at 12 key intersections — such as Ultadanga and Kankurgachhi in the north and Behala Chowrasta and Rashbehari in the south — during morning office hours.
Roads were blocked, passengers forced out of buses and windowpanes of state-run buses smashed when thousands of ISC students were heading for their physical education examination.
Although the government has urged the auto drivers to maintain status quo till the higher secondary exams are over on April 7, a section has vowed to carry on with the protest.
More inconvenience is lurking ahead next week as over 20,000 taxi operators — owing allegiance to the Bengal Taxi Association — have threatened to go on a strike on April 19 demanding a hike in fares.
The prices of LPG, the cleaner fuel autos use after being forced to switch over from the toxic katatel cocktail, have been rising steadily over the past year.
Although the state government has said it would take up the issue with the Centre, the price surge is being driven by outside forces. Global oil prices have been fluctuating wildly, largely because of the Arab uprising and the fears surrounding Iran's nuclear programme as well as the threat of Israeli response.
But long years of political patronage have conditioned the unions controlling the autos — once the Left and now the ruling Trinamul Congress — to expect government intervention.
The economic slogan of the government — "no hikes, no matter what the reality is" — has also made it difficult for the auto drivers to digest the fuel price increase while many other spheres of life have been granted immunity from such realities.
"The state collects a 13.5 per cent VAT on auto LPG price. If the state decides to forego a part of it, auto drivers can get some relief," said an oil company official, adding that the company charged the same price across all cities.
"We have no option as our livelihood is at stake," said Mihir Ghosh, an auto driver on the Phoolbagan-Karunamoyee route, who had taken part in the roadblock this morning.
Ghosh said the rising prices of auto LPG had made the operations unviable for the auto drivers in Calcutta. Over 30,000 such drivers operate in the city, although the official count is put at 10,129 on the 125 notified routes.
Usually, when input prices rise, the hike is passed on to the end-users — in this case, commuters. Auto fares have been raised by Re 1 to Rs 2 on some routes but the auto drivers are realising that they cannot go beyond a point.
The unions and the drivers fear that another fare hike may drive passengers to other modes of communication such as buses.
Here, too, skewed economics comes into play. Bus fares have more or less remained static for some time because the government, in keeping with its utopian policy, would not allow any hike. So have Metro train fares. This has ensured that the gap between the cost of an auto ride and alternatives has been widening.
Tossed into this cauldron of questionable economics is a dash of expediency built on a diet of unreasonable expectations. "The police do not allow us to take more than four passengers in areas like Thakurpukur, Behala and Salt Lake. How will we survive?" asked the middle-aged driver, who has to support a family of six with his earnings.
Ferrying the fourth passenger itself is bad enough — a sight not seen in many modern cities. To squeeze in another will be another slap in the face of motoring rules.
But the middle-aged driver recounted the compulsions that are making him voice such a demand.
He has to pay Rs 250 to the owner of the auto besides bearing the cost of the fuel. On a normal day, his earnings — after deducting the rent and fuel cost — used to be more than Rs 150 till February.
"After the Rs 4.55 hike from March 1, our incomes dropped…. The latest hike of another Rs 6.48 will further erode our margins," he said.
In the face of such irreconcilable odds, the government feels it has little option but to crack the whip.
"We do not have any role in the rise of auto LPG prices as the Centre decides it. We are willing to discuss with the auto drivers the problems they are facing, but we will not tolerate any lawlessness," industries minister Partha Chatterjee said after holding a meeting with transport minister Madan Mitra and chief minister Mamata Banerjee.
Sources in Writers' said the police, who arrested 28 people today, were instructed to take tough action against auto drivers who break the law. But the majority of auto drivers are Trinamul supporters, who contribute anything between Rs 5 and Rs 10 every day to the auto unions led by the party.
Autos mushroomed in the late 1970s when unemployment in urban Bengal was spiralling and the public transport system in Calcutta was creaking. From the very beginning, assured of political patronage, the auto operators started flouting norms.
"Eight out of 10 autos are illegal as the Left Front government never tried to discipline them. The auto drivers never cared about following rules as they were free to start any route and charge any fare," Mitra told The Telegraph.
Autos in cities like Pune and Hyderabad also run on auto LPG. But unlike Calcutta, the autos there run as contract carriages with meters.
The auto drivers were once a captive support base of Citu. But of late, many have switched allegiance to a Trinamul-led auto union, which till the other day was led by Trinamul MLA Sovandeb Chattopadhyay.
Chattopadhyay did not want to comment on today's trouble. Dola Sen, the president of the Trinamul-led trade union, said: "We have information that CPM and Congress conspired to instigate the trouble."