Last night I hailed an auto-rickshaw on my way home from a mall. It had three people in the back and one on each side of the driver. “Hop in the front,” the driver said.
Just that morning the newspaper said the state transport minister Madan Mitra had held a press conference to announce that he had asked autos to only allow four passengers at a time. That itself is a compromise. The three-wheeler should only carry three. “But we are allowing one more,” Mitra told the media. “But under no condition can an auto driver carry more than four.”
“You already have five people,” I told my auto driver, not because I was trying to enforce Mitra’s diktat but because I was afraid I would fall off. He shrugged and asked the person standing next to me if he wanted to get in instead. He did.
The impetus for Madan Mitra’s sudden auto crackdown was a horrific incident that has been front page news for several days in Kolkata.
Adrika, a four-year-old girl fell off a speeding auto a few days ago. Even as her mother screamed for help, the auto driver did not stop and dragged her along the road in his rush to get away. The girl has multiple fractures on her legs, bruises on her face and injuries near her private parts. She is likely to be confined to her bed for at least two months. The police did nothing when the parents complained. When they were finally prodded into action they slapped weak charges of rash driving and causing grievous injury on the accused driver. Sanjay Das, the driver, said the union told him to just lie low for a couple of days. “Nothing would happen to me, they said,” he told The Telegraph.
This is not the first auto horror story here. A few weeks ago a couple were beaten up by auto drivers when they complained that the auto had grazed their car and dented it. While the husband was being beaten up, the woman was whisked away in full view of a home guard on duty. She was taken to a lane in a slum where a woman grabbed her by the hair and banged her head repeatedly against the three-wheeler. Eventually another elderly auto driver came to her rescue. In this case as well, the driver was eventually slapped with bailable charges as opposed to abduction though there were plenty of witnesses.
Madan Mitra now wants to lay down a sort of auto passenger’s bill of rights.
No more than four passengers.
No smoking while driving.
Must display a board with auto number and police helpline number.
Must display high security number plates.
No playing music while driving.
But it’s not about loud music and cigarette smoke. What Mitra does not address is why the auto driver feels he can act with such impunity.
When the Trinamool swept into power, one of the first biggest signs of change in a city like Kolkata was the auto drivers switched over to Trinamool-affiliated INTTUC from the CPIM’s CITU almost en masse. Now Trinamool has to ensure they get to hold on to their loyalty.
What Mitra is not talking about is the Rs 5 to 10 that Trinamool leaders collect every day from auto drivers as “subscription.” Given that there are 45,000 autos in the Kolkata-Howrah area that adds up to a tidy sum. It is, in effect, protection money, a license to do as you please or at least bear no consequences if you screw up. As the union leaders told the auto driver who dragged the child “Aamra shamle nebo.” (We will manage it). Police drag their feet about acting on complaints because they fear that auto drivers will go on the rampage and block roads, all with political cover. Police too get their cut and in some cities they are the ones who own many of the autos.
If we were to book autos for all the violations, the Kolkata Police coffers would be overflowing,” a senior police officer told the Times of India. “Though a crackdown is desperately needed to prevent complete anarchy on the streets, we have been unable to act owing to various factors, including the political patronage they enjoy.”
Autos are the lifeline of most of our cities. In cities like Kolkata they are the shuttles that take people from far flung areas of the city to subway stops. They go the short distances that taxis will not. They fill in the gaps of public transportation. They are vital for people who cannot get into crowded buses.
And therein lies the other problem with any crackdown. It’s not just political patronage that has the hands of the police tied. It’s public apathy as well. Autos get away with cramming six passengers into it because six people are willing to get on. Sanjay Das, the auto driver, said his other passengers urged him to drive on and not stop for the injured child. Ever since Madan Mitra’s decree came down, there have been protests because four passengers an auto means a longer wait and none of us want that. The media reported a woman complained that now autos would not allow them to carry children above the age of three on their laps. “It is all for that lady (Adrika’s mother),” a woman fumed because she would have to cough up her child’s fare.
The only person who did the right thing in this whole sorry mess was Sanjay’s mother. When she found out why her son was skulking around at home instead of driving his auto as usual, she slapped him across the face.
“I did not teach him to be so insensitive, to leave a bleeding child behind and run away,” she said.
Sadly, we don’t have more of her around.