The rethink on bus fares barely a fortnight after the government agreed to raise them has triggered threats of an agitation that would benefit neither the commuter nor the transport operator desperate to hold on to his hike.
Mamata Banerjee's insistence on reviewing the fare hike because it is "steep" is seen by many transport operators as a breach of trust.
"Any downward revision will spell doom for us. We cannot accept a rollback of the fare structure arrived at after careful consideration of proposals from all quarters over several months," Sadhan Das, the secretary of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates, said.
The transport lobby had hailed the first restructuring of bus fares in two decades as the victory of pragmatism over populism. The restructuring gave them a hike of 50 to 75 per cent on several routes, compensating for the rise in diesel price by 45 per cent since the last fare revision on August 1, 2009.
If the government's acceptance of the bus owners' demand averted a transport collapse in the nick of time, even a partial rollback could have potentially far more damaging repercussions, sources said.
The germ of the controversy is whether the government did its math properly before replacing incremental fares based on every 4km travelled with those calculated on the basis of journey stages of 3km, 4km and 6km (see chart).
"The chief minister thinks that transport operators will reap super profits because of this revision and hence the need for a rethink," a transport department official said.
A commuter travelling 4km now has to pay Rs 7, which is Rs 3 (75 per cent) higher than the old fare. For a 20km journey, one has to pay Rs 11, against Rs 7 for the same distance travelled before November 1.
The new structure seemed to satisfy the bus operators, many of whom had taken their vehicles off the road to cut losses. Around 60 per cent of the city's fleet of private buses wasn't operating before the fare hike happened.
Metro had highlighted how most commuters didn't grudge bus operators a fare hike, having suffered for want of adequate transport options on the city roads.
"The government is against a hike of more than a rupee per stage for bus journeys in the city," industries minister Partha Chatterjee said on Thursday afternoon, hinting that a downward revision is possible. "The revision we had proposed was a hike of Re 1 per stage. The extra Rs 3 to 4 being charged on many routes is a misinterpretation of the hike by some people."
Chatterjee, the chairman of the group of ministers tasked to end the transport stand-off, had rolled out the new fare structure on October 31, describing it as the "perfect balance" between "the needs of commuters and operators".
He ducked questions on how a picture of "perfect balance" barely a fortnight ago could become flawed or be misinterpreted.
"The new structure was implemented only because the chief minister gave her seal of approval. Now she is against it as she has heard about some resistance to it in some pockets," an official said.
The government's transport think tank, including panchayat minister Subrata Mukherjee, power minister Manish Gupta, urban development minister Firhad Hakim, finance minister Amit Mitra and transport minister Madan Mitra, had taken more than two months to finalise the new rate chart after studying the balance sheets of bus operators.
Although some members of the group weren't around, Chatterjee convened an emergency meeting on Thursday after a prod from the chief minister, sources said.