Saheli Dey: September 16 would be known as BLACK FRIDAY in life of Kolkata, for no other reason but due to the tragic end of a sweet innocent girl in the heart of the city on Friday.
Reason? Rash Driving—Rash DRIVING—RASH DRIVING.
People who belong to Kolkata, people who come to Kolkata, people who wake up in Kolkata, people who go to sleep in Kolkata know what rash driving is. Being a citizen of Kolkata, I know – rash driving is something which claims life of students like Puja Paul in friction of a second.
Commuting in auto-rickshaws is an experience that most people in the city would want to forget, given the unruly behaviour of drivers. But because of comfort and time saving options, commuters have no alternatives but to rely on auto-rickshaws, ignoring small incidents of harassment only to be jolted when episodes turn into nasty confrontations. This menace should be stopped, but who cares!!
We wake up to the topic every time when this issue flashes on the TV screen. But we generally forget the incident when another issue comes up. Yes, we have woken up to this topic because of the tragic death of the first year college student on Friday. But we will not rest until every auto-riding soul protests against this menace of the city life.
An innocent life was lost yesterday, when the auto-rickshaw she was seated in, slammed onto a bus after speeding past a flashing signal near Ultadanga, a signal for caution that most auto drivers ignore. Not only had this, but the state’s food and supplies minister Mr. Jyotipriya Mullick and his security faced the wrath of the auto drivers while trying to enter Khadya Bhawan on Friday. This shows that even political powers become powerless in front of these auto drivers. Today, another tragic incident took place in Howrah’s Kulgachia. A seven year old boy has died there. And a policeman is injured near Khadya Bhawan again.
The threat of this three-wheeled vehicle has become a major issue with the auto drivers claiming more fares than expected. These auto drivers consider themselves a law unto themselves though often they lack valid and legitimate permit, registration and driving license. Officially, Calcutta has 10,150 autos plying on 125 notified routes. But officials from both the transport department and Calcutta Police claim that the actual numbers are much more.
To curb this ever-increasing menace, the Calcutta High Court had passed an order in 2003 directing the state government to install meters in auto-rickshaws and fix a fare structure within eight weeks. But this order has not been evidently implemented yet. Auto fares still get fixed by operator’s unions in consultation with the local political gurujis and gurumas. The passengers feel the effect in long run when they have to pay fares double the normal amount. Auto-rickshaw drivers of Kolkata increase their fares without any valid reason especially during important and big festivals like Durga Puja. The autos, of Sovabazaar to Ultadanga route, charge a minimum of 30 rupees which is 3 times above the normal 10 rupees fare. Unfortunately, the commuters are forced to accept their illogical demands, due to lack of other transport facilities as similar to the number of autos which rein the streets on Puja.
To mention a few incidents in the past, I recollect, very well, about the incident that took place at Hazra crossing on September 8, 2015. On that day, an auto carrying two passengers (a man and a woman) overturned in Hazra while trying to overtake another auto. While the male passenger did not sustain any injuries, the female passenger suffered serious injuries, bleeding profusely from the head. The auto driver left the injured woman and fled. It was only when a police patrolling van came across the bleeding woman being surrounded by many locals that she was taken to the SSKM hospital. Even after 24 hours after the incident, the accused driver was at large and the police was not able to nab him.
I have visited cities like Hyderabad where the auto rickshaws are considered the best options for short and long trips. They are cheaper than a taxi and generally a better option for getting around in the Hyderabad city. The minimum fares do get hiked often, but they are not hiked without proper announcement. Passengers pay fares as per the rates shown on the meters fixed on the auto itself, which our own city has failed to adopt yet.
A similar auto menace like our city exists in Bengaluru where citizens use auto rickshaws for regular commute and negotiating with auto drivers is no small issue. Especially if one is staying in an area that does not see too much traffic or is remote, negotiating about fares, or losing down a number of autos, before getting one that agrees to go, is a common occurrence. The Bangalore Traffic Police have taken several steps to curb this menace. They have started a 24×7 helpline system where a complaint against a particular auto-driver can be registered. Passengers also have the facility of sending sms to complaint against any driver who refuses to take in any passenger. Several other technological advancements have been made in Bangalore to bring the menace under control. Reportedly, the menace has reduced, if not in huge numbers. But Kolkata is still lagging behind with no proper measure taken.
Auto menace is prevalent in Delhi too. In Delhi, the auto drivers refuse to start the meter even if a commuted requests him too. They not only refuse but start misbehaving too. The commuters seem helpless with the present situation as reportedly the police even fail to help them.
These instances show us that auto menace exists everywhere, but rarely actions are taken against them. Some states take proper measures, while others keep a relaxing eye on them.
In our city, these auto-rickshaws zoom along the roads throwing caution and traffic rules to winds. They zig-zag through the maze of vehicles, climb on to pavements, graze past cars that dare to come on their way and often leave their passengers injured by spinning out of control on a crowded street. Kolkata has never had a more reckless machine on wheels. Auto-rickshaws have redefined rash driving and forced Kolkata commuters to surrender to their wild ways. They rule the dark alleys of the streets where the arm of the law fails to reach.
Autos keep breaking laws every second. From taking in more passengers than allowed, playing loud music, harassing the passengers, moving dangerously through the traffic (which resulted in Puja Paul’s death yesterday) to switching over to other lanes without any warning. When a police books the auto for several of these offences, and imposes a fine, the driver along with other autos surrounds the cop to pressurize him to drop the case. I have witnessed several police officers sitting idly with an unnoticing glance to the several auto-traumas happening all in front of him. I wonder what stops them from taking action, the powerless yet powerful drivers or the powerful yet powerless law.
The police promise action against this menace every time an incident occurs, only to forget about it until another life or limb is lost on a lawless street. While the officers fail to take them at task, these unruly drivers do as they please which results in keeping the passengers terrified. Even if you protest, you would be at the receiving end. To support this point, I would state about the attack that a lady faced a few months ago. A woman with her child boarded an auto to return back to their house. To protest the excess fare charge, the woman decided to get down from the auto. As she informed the driver and stepped out one of her legs, the driver started the auto, resulting in the woman facing an accident. She fell over with her child and got seriously injured. Her child suffered minor injuries too. Thus, this auto-raj continues unabated in the city.
Until and unless the government takes strict measures, nothing can be solved. Just by walking away (by our Food and supplies minister and his bodyguard facing abuses), is not a solution. If a minister can do nothing, how can a common man do? Someone who is in power does not utilize it. So, those who do not have power how protest against such menace? By keeping his /her life, at risk?
To conclude, I ask: How many more ‘Puja’ needs to sacrifice their life before the ‘City of Joy’ wakes up? Auto Rickshaw is Kolkata’s lifeline. But if somebody takes this advantage and blackmails the people that is a crime.