Commuters in Mumbai had a harrowing time on Monday, as a powerful transport union representing auto-rickshaws observed a daylong strike demanding higher fares.
Sharad Rao, the chief of the Mumbai Auto-rickshaw Union — who also heads unions of taxis and BEST, the leading bus operator — called for a state-wide strike in Maharashtra, demanding a sharp hike in fares.
Rao, who is also a member of the ruling Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), met Ajit Pawar, the state’s deputy chief minister and claimed that he had agreed to discuss the union’s demands after the conclusion of the current budget session of the state legislature.
The union leader claimed that 1.5 million auto-rickshaws in Maharashtra — including about 100,000 in Mumbai — were off the roads on Monday. Thousands of commuters, including students appearing for their final examinations, could be seen at bus stops all over the suburbs of Mumbai, waiting for alternate transportation. The three-wheeled auto-rickshaws are allowed to ply only in Mumbai’s suburbs.
But auto-rickshaw unions affiliated to the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), besides another union floated by the son of Congressman and senior minister Narayan Rane did not participate in the Rao-led strike.
They claimed they were satisfied by the government’s decision, announced last week, to hike the minimum auto fare (for the first 1.6 km) from Rs11 to Rs12. Rao’s demand includes raising the fare from Rs11 to Rs16, a Rs2 hike (to Rs9) for every additional kilometre travelled, besides a slowdown in the enforcement of electronic meters for autos. Most of the auto-rickshaws in Mumbai continue operating with manual meters, which are easy to manipulate. Auto-rickshaw unions are opposed to compulsory use of electronic meters, which cannot be tampered with.
Many of the auto-rickshaw drivers who operate near the airport terminals, railway stations and major bus stops fleece commuters by tampering with their vehicle meters. The transport authorities often crack down on such operators, but the negligible penalties that are slapped on them do not act as a deterrent.
The transport authorities claim that most of the auto-rickshaws in Mumbai’s suburbs, Navi Mumbai and Thane are now fitted with compressed natural gas kits, whereas the unions want to link the fares to the price of petrol. In fact, recently the authorities ordered auto-rickshaw drivers in Navi Mumbai to lower the minimum fare as all the vehicles operate on natural gas and not petrol.