Aveek Bose works for an insurance company in Kolkata. For his trip home in the evenings, he relies on Kolkata's famous shared taxi services, which are relatively cheap. Perhaps, not anymore. Following the hike in diesel prices, the cabbies are demanding a 50 per cent increase in fares, but the West Bengal government has said no to them. And chaos rules the streets now. Welcome to the new Bengal, where the utopian politics of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is making life difficult for the common man.
Mamata has withdrawn support to the Manmohan Singh government in protest against the hike in diesel prices and the fresh wave of economic reforms. “Enough is enough. They have tested our patience too much and time has come for us to take a call,” said Mamata. However, her ban on fare hikes has badly affected not just the ailing transport sector, but also the common man, whom she champions. “Taxis demand exorbitant rates and they refuse to come if we try to bargain,” said Anjali Roy, a school teacher.
Bimal Guha, president of Bengal Taxi Association, accepts that the situation is grim. “Our drivers are literally resorting to extortion. We are forced to run our business illegally because of the government,” said Guha. The taxi owners have announced an indefinite strike from September 20, and 4,000 taxi owners have already surrendered their permits.
Bus services are also likely to be affected. “If the government is not ready to increase the bus fare, we will be unable to ply our buses,” said Sadhan Das, secretary of the Joint Council of Bus Syndicate. Some truckers have already started charging higher rates. Black marketers, too, are on a roll, pushing up food prices.
The government appears to be in no mood to relent. Mamata, it seems, is unwilling to take a risk as panchayat elections are due early next year. “If the buses and taxi owners decide to go on strike, we may use force. We are urging them to surrender their permits. We have our alternatives ready,” said Madan Mitra, transport minister.
Mamata, apparently, pulled the plug on the UPA government after extensive consultations with other parties. She was in touch with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav, who, according to a source, had informed her about the Centre's plan on FDI and other issues. “But she failed to convince Mulayam to withdraw support,” said the source.
Mamata is also in touch with Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and some BJP leaders about the possibility of an early election. But she is not so keen to return to the NDA right now. She prefers an early Lok Sabha election before anti-incumbency sets in. “Her plan is to win at least 30 seats and that will be possible only if elections are held early,” said the source.
So, it is possible that didi will try for an early election while the Congress tries to avert it. Caught in this political game, the people of Bengal have no respite from the spiralling price hike.