Mamata prod prompts rethink on 'steep' bus fare hike

Chief minister Mamata Banerjee is apparently unhappy with the extent of the bus fare hike cleared by her cabinet and government sources said a downward revision could not be ruled out.

According to a source, Mamata had called up transport minister Madan Mitra and a few other senior transport officials on Monday and "echoed the concerns of a section of commuters".

Senior transport department officials are likely to hold a meeting with Mitra on Wednesday to discuss the fare structure and the stages where the hike appears "quite steep", said a source.

The final call on a fare revision, however, would only be taken at a meeting of the group of ministers empowered to look after transport issues.

Mamata made the calls around 5.45pm, before she stepped out of Writers' to inaugurate a slew of Kali pujas, including one organised by Trinamul MLA Swarnakamal Saha, the chief adviser to the Bengal Bus Syndicate, the second-largest body of private bus operators in Bengal.

On October 31, announcing the transport fare hike, industries minister Partha Chatterjee, chairman of the group of ministers on transport, had announced that an upward revision of Re 1 had been made in different stages so that people were not burdened.

What he had not said was that the stages had been altered after almost two decades, making the hike as much as 77 per cent in certain sectors.

For example, a 4km ride, which earlier cost Rs 4 now costs Rs 7. This is because earlier, the "first stage" was 0 to 4 km. Now, the "first stage" is 0 to 3km. Consequently, a 4km journey is now costlier by Rs 3.

Similarly, earlier, a passenger would pay Rs 8 to cover 24km. Now, the fare is Rs 13.

Several transport department officials said the fares appeared steep because they had been revised after three years.

"The Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee government almost suffered from a sort of policy paralysis in its last months and the Mamata Banerjee government was too populist in its first months. The result was a near collapse of the transport sector," said a transport official.

The chief minister's latest concern about the hike could spell another round of gloom for transport operators.

The hike had come after a crippling bus strike and the disappearance of a large number of private buses from the road.

Now that the fares have been raised, the CPM has also started to take potshots at the government.

After chairing a Left Front meeting at Alimuddin Street recently, chairman Biman Bose said: "We have been hearing reports from the public that the hike has been steep. The government must explain and come clean about the basis of the increase. If the administration doesn't do that, we'll be forced to begin an agitation.''

According to a Trinamul insider, Mamata does not want to let the CPM seize the opportunity to politicise the issue.

"The government should not roll back the hike," said Sadhan Das of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicates, the biggest body of private bus operators in the state.