Trouble brewing in Kolkata over ban on old vehicles


Kolkata : To ban or not to ban? This question is uppermost in the minds of West Bengal’s officials and transport operators, who appear to be heading for a showdown, as the authorities are determined to implement a high court ban from July 31 on commercial vehicles that are more than 15 years old.

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The state transport department’s decision has triggered resentment among commercial vehicle operators who make their living in and around Kolkata.

“It’s an injustice to all of us. The government should not ban all vehicles which are more than 15 years old in the name of environmental pollution. If any such vehicle is spreading pollution the government can certainly impose the ban and phase it out. But not those vehicles which are in good condition,” said Swarnakamal Saha of Kolkata Metropolitian Bus and Mini Bus Owners Association.

He said they were in talks with the Bengal Bus Association and Joint Council of Bus Syndicates to arrive at a unanimous decision.

“We are planning to launch a big movement against this decision. The government has no sympathy for us,” Saha added, alleging that the government had turned its back on commercial vehicle operators.

But the state government seemed unfazed.

“We’ll begin our drive from July 25 to phase out the old vehicles. We’ll ensure that after July 31 not a single commercial vehicle that is more than 15 years old plies in the Kolkata Metropolitan Area (KMA),” state Transport Secretary Sumantra Chowdhury said.

When it was pointed out that the order would inconvenience commuters he said: “Yes, they’ll be in trouble. But what can we do?

“These people (transport operators) did not do what they should have done. Over the last one year they should have started the process of buying new vehicles by disposing off these oldies.”

Chowdhury said initially the court had decreed that the order be implemented by the state government by Dec 31 last year. “But we got it extended till July 31, 2009”.

“The government is unilaterally taking all decisions keeping in mind the interests of drivers and conductors. They don’t pay any heed to the interests of the operators,” said Sadhan Das of Joint Council of Bus Syndicate.

The Calcutta High Court issued an order in July last year to ban commercial vehicles registered before Jan 1, 1993 from Kolkata and its outskirts. It said the order should be implemented by Dec 31, 2008, in the KMA, which includes parts of north and south 24-Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly districts.

Later, the ban was extended till July 31, 2009 following a plea by the state government.

The court also directed that all auto-rickshaws, irrespective of their date of registration, would have to convert to either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

Chowdhury said the government would have to phase out 6,000 taxis, 3,000 buses and 35,000 autos by July 31.

Last Friday, a division bench of Calcutta High Court comprising Chief Justice S.S. Nijjar and Justice B. Somadder had said that it would not entertain any request from the state government to extend the July 31 deadline for phasing out old commercial vehicles.

State advocate-general Balai Roy submitted that the transport department was “determined” to phase out old vehicles and is holding talks with the owners on a regular basis.

Earlier, the state’s main opposition Trinamool Congress opposed the government’s decision to ban old commercial vehicles from the city streets overnight. They have threatened to call a shutdown if the government takes such stringent action without giving adequate time to the operators.

Reacting to the order, a group of agitated auto-rickshaw drivers also went on a rampage and set a bus on fire on a busy south Kolkata street.

Blaming the state government, Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee said there were around 300,000 people in Kolkata who would be directly affected if the state government implemented the ban “in such a short span”.