Kolkata: With many offices opening up as the lockdown rules get relaxed by the state, commuters are seen queuing up at bus stops and taxi stands for the elusive transport to ferry them to their work places.
Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had earlier this week announced measures to ease the woes of office goers by starting bus and taxi services, after following lockdown rules and social distancing norms. The news was music to the ears of many transporters and taxi drivers, looking forward to be back in business soon.
But problems remain, which need to be ironed out first. One of the contentious issue is the fare revision. Transporters are also demanding compensation and relief from the government for running the buses again apart from demanding medical insurance for the staff. The government is worried how to enforce the social distancing norms on buses and taxis, once more and more routes open up. They are also deliberating how much they can hike the fare so that it does not pinch the pockets of commuters too much.
The proposed fare for the first 4km is Rs 20 for normal buses, Rs 25 for mini buses and Rs 50 for AC buses. For the taxis, the revised fare structure will be announced on May 20, who demanded a hike of 100%. As of now, only two persons will be allowed at a time, both in the rear seat.
A proposed fare table for private bus routes during lockdown was sent to the transport department on Friday.
But the government has refused to revise fares for private buses, autos or cabs as of now. Transport minister Suvendu Adhikari announced the decision on Saturday late evening.
“This is a difficult time. We proposed the hike to cover our operational cost. But, the decision by the government not to revise fares rules out the possibility of more private buses on the roads from Monday. The state should have thought about us. Government could at least withdraw the cess on diesel. If they do, it will immediately lead to the cost of fuel coming down by Rs 18-20. They aren’t showing their humanitarian side. The expectation and prediction of the commuters and transporters have been altered with the state decision,” said Tapan Banerjee, secretary, Joint Council of Bus Syndicate.
Bimal Guha, secretary Bengal Taxi Association too ruled out more taxis on the roads. “Now, it seems things can normalize only after the lockdown ends,” he said.
Rahul Chatterjee, secretary, All Bengal Bus Minibus Samannay Samity, however has a different take on the government decision. “The state had given us the responsibility of fixing the fare structure. But, some people within the transport industry in their over enthusiasm took some arbitrary decisions which has led to this decision by the government. We, as transporters, should have been more measured in our approach,” he said.
Chatterjee, though, has asked for financial assistance and relief every month till the lockdown lasts. “We will be carrying 50% of the seat capacity, which means in a 40-seater bus only 20 passengers will be allowed. We had written to the state Chief Minister, Prime Minister and transport minister with our demands,” he said.
Indranil Bandopadhyay, secretary, Online Cab Drivers’ Guild said: “From the guild we will try to help the drivers by tying them up with car-part manufacturers so that they can get subsidy while repairing cabs.”
Off the Blocks
It is easier said than done for the government with the announcement of starting bus services to full strength from Monday. Many buses will need repairs and overhauling. Also the workforce is less than half the normal strength with many of the drivers, conductors and helpers having gone back to their native villages outside the state. Many of the busses which have been lying inoperative for last two months will need around Rs 70,000 to Rs 80,000 for repairs. Some of the drivers, conductors and helpers are from outside the state and have left for their respective homes before the lockdown. It will be some time before the buses are back to full strength,” said Tapan Banerjee of the bus syndicate.He said that short termination and reorientation of the routes will be a tricky affair. “It needs micro planning which can only happen if we sit with the government across the table,” added Banerjee.
Rahul Chatterjee of minibus operators association had already sounded out to the operators of district and suburban bus routes to talk to the local authorities about the various problems they might face due to the stalling of these buses. “These owners have been asked to gear up to run the buses from Monday.But, it seems hardly possible to start operations now,” said Chatterjee.
Mediclaim for Workforce
“I have asked the state authorities to have medical insurance for all the stakeholders, just like it has been announced for all emergency workers. The families of the drivers and conductors are also at risk. Recently, a dear friend of mine, a doctor who tested +ve for Coronavirus was transported to the hospital in a cab. Now, the taxi driver too has tested +ve and is undergoing treatment. The government has to think about it. Otherwise, the taxi drivers are not willing to risk their lives. These cab drivers are also risking their lives by ferrying people, said Bimal Guha, secretary Bengal Taxi Association, who is also convener of bus, minibus and taxi association. The BTA runs around 22,000 taxis in Kolkata, Howrah and 24-Parganas.
Missing bulk of Passengers
Guha feels passengers will also be wary of moving out and travelling in taxis. Banerjee of private bus syndicate said: “Where are the passengers. With the local trains, educational institutions, malls and offices shut, from where will we get out business? You can very well understand how will the passenger restrictions work.”
Govt Buses Start Operations
However, state buses have been seeing steady growth in demand from office-goers. West Bengal Transport Corporation (WBTC) has been running skeletal service on six routes since March 25 mostly catering to emergency services and frontline workers.
From Friday, WBTC has increased frequency of skeletal bus services to eight different routes and from Monday, the frequency would be increased on all routes of skeleton service in Kolkata.
Government buses have been following Covid protocols with the driver’s seat demarcated and covered with plastic partition.The crew acting as Coronavirus warriors are being provided with PPE Kits, masks and safety equipments among others.
The buses are also being used in various city hospitals for health duty and for special operations like Shramik trains.
WBTC managing director Rajanvir Singh Kapur said over the phone: “We are constantly in touch with traffic teams, police and crews to provide service during this tough time.”