Lower fares spell fewer buses

A fare revision supposed to benefit the commuter has ended up shrinking his transport options with private buses once again going off many routes on the first working day since the partial rollback.

While Calcuttans on the move struggled to find a bus, let alone a seat or space to stand, the government stood its ground.

"The bus operators are trying to armtwist us by withdrawing buses but we will not budge," said industries minister Partha Chatterjee, whom chief minister Mamata Banerjee has assigned the responsibility of working out a solution to the transport mess.

A group of ministers under the chairmanship of Chatterjee had spent over two months framing a fare structure to help bus operators tide over the spiralling rise in operational costs. Within a fortnight of announcing a new structure, Chatterjee announced a partial rollback by freezing the hike at Re 1 at each stage.

While the government claimed that the partial rollback had been decided after careful consideration of the cost structure of running buses, the operators said the new rate card would force them to go off the road again to cut losses.

A survey by Metro showed the impact of the rollback on transport (see chart).

"I waited half an hour at the Sarsuna terminus to board a bus on the 18A route before deciding to take an auto to reach Behala Chowrasta en route to my Dalhousie office. From there, I took a taxi to reach my office," said Dipankar Dasgupta, who works in an accounting firm.

Dasgupta, who is in his early fifties, spent Rs 139 instead of the Rs 9 that would take him to Dalhousie by bus before the partial rollback. His one-way fare prior to the hike had been Rs 7.

He is not the only one who wouldn't mind paying Rs 2 extra for a 15km bus ride.

"The government wanted to reduce the fare hike by Re 1 and look at the trouble caused by that decision. There is no logic in this…. If the bus operators and passengers agree on a fare structure, I can't understand why the government is interfering," said Dasgupta, holding the government responsible for the extra Rs 130 he had to spend on his Monday morning commute to office.

Similar questions were heard in various bus stops and bus depots, where passengers were waiting for buses as most operators withdrew their buses to cut losses.

Industries minister Chatterjee claimed the government was aware of the plight of commuters and was ready with a set of solutions, ranging from cancellation of permits to deployment of more government buses. "The chief minister has made it clear that she won't tolerate operators pulling out buses and that permits would be cancelled if they don't fall in line," he said.

But the kind of strong administrative action that Chatterjee has promised requires a lot of preparation, a transport department official said.

The steps include identifying recalcitrant bus owners, sending them showcause notices, cancelling their permits and offering those to new applicants. "The process is lengthy and also involves legal challenges," the official said.

Lack of co-ordination within the government was also in evidence at the bus depots. Some buses did not ply ostensibly because the public vehicles department hadn't circulated the new fare chart.