Taxi stir deflates Puja shopping spirit

Anurag Dey   |  Kolkata


Forget the festive pre-Durga puja spirit. It is now nightmare on Kolkata streets ahead of West Bengal's biggest socio-religious carnival, with taxis on indefinite strike and even a section of other public transporters making common cause for a day.

It is traditionally the time of the year when the air here is filled with festive cheer and excitement and people madly go shopping picking up new dresses, ornaments and gifts. But 2014 is turning out to be a sad exception, with the absence of taxis leaving in the lurch the countless shoppers who do not have a vehicle of their own.

The disappearance of the entire fleet of over 37,000 yellow cabs - a quintessential Kolkata symbol - has resulted in jampacked buses and huge time-consuming queues at Metro stations and auto-rickshaw stands.

Take the case of Santanu Roy, a middle aged South Kolkata resident. "Last Saturday, I had taken out my family for shopping. We could not board a bus as people were standing even on the footboard. We had to wait for 90 minutes before the Metro station ticket counter. While returning home, I had to change auto-rickshaws (which ply point-to-point in Kolkata) thrice, and every time we had to wait 45 minutes to one hour in the queue".

Demanding a hike in fares and withdrawal of legal action against errant drivers, backed by Left-oriented trade unions, the cabbies have been on an indefinite strike since Sep 18. This phase of the agitation has followed seven strikes called by the unions since August.

To add to the woes of the commuters, transport workers affiliated to eight central trade unions, including the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Indian National Trade Union Congress and All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), had called a transport strike last Friday expressing solidarity with the cabbies. A section of buses, autos and minibuses also took part in the strike.

While commuting in the city was already a nightmare thanks to cratered stretches and roads encroached upon by the big Durga puja marquees, the strike has only compounded the misery.

"The queues are far longer in auto stands than the discount shops. You have to stand like morons for hours to avail a 20-minute auto ride," said Ila Bose who had come shopping with her kids.

"Even liquor shops before a dry day don't get such long queues," quipped another commuter.

The stir has also affected people from the suburbs who come down to the metropolis for their shopping.

"Pre-puja shopping is much a part of the festival and it also affords an outing for the family. But considering the pains that we have to undertake to reach the city from the railway station, we will have to be content with local shops if the taxi service doesn't resume,a said Reeta De, a resident of Diamond Harbour in the neighbouring South 24 Parganas district.

The CPI-M affiliated Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), one of the architects of the stir, blames the Mamata Banerjee headed Trinamool Congress government for the impasse.

"The government is so callous that it is ignoring the legitimate demands of the taxi drivers. I know commuters are suffering. But the responsibility lies completely with the government, which has not taken any step to resolve the issue," CITU leader and former minister Anadi Sahu told IANS.

He failed to assure if the people would be spared the harassment during the Puja.

Passing the buck on the agitators, Trinamool labour leader Dola Sen dubbed the stir as "hooliganism" claiming cabbies who defied the strike were threatened and attacked.

"The CITU, AITUC, INTUC never had any organisation among taxi drivers. But now that the ground has slipped from under their feet, they are trying to create trouble only to stay in the news," Sen told IANS.

Caught between the striking unions and the unrelenting government, taxi owners associations are now threatening to surrender their permits if the impasse was not solved at the earliest.

"The strike has affected most of the cabbies, with many of their families going hungry. With the government not inclined to solve the impasse, we have no other way but to surrender our permits and look for plying rickshaws, for they are more profitable," Bengal Taxi Association general secretary Bimal Guha told IANS. - IANS