Assam Transport Minister takes on dreaded Auto-Rickshaw Lobby

In what could be his toughest test yet, Assam minister for transport Anjan Dutta has decided to take on Guwahati’s auto-rickshaw drivers, a dreaded lot as far as commuters are concerned, by introducing a pre-paid system in the city. The system, announced at a press conference and in the presence of the Guwahati Auto-Rickshaw Union, is to come into effect from October 20. Guwahati’s auto-rickshaw drivers, who heralded a social movement of sorts in the ‘70s, with unemployed engineers and doctors setting an example in self-reliance and the dignity of labour, had, however, over the years degenerated into no more than another set of people who were ripping off people at will. Several earlier attempts by the transport department to enforce the use of fare meters have failed in Guwahati, with auto-rickshaw drivers refusing to cooperate.

Dutta has also, meanwhile, stepped up his ministry’s green campaign with new emission and decibel targets. “The three-wheelers emit poisonous gases and flout permitted decibel levels,” Dutta said. His agenda includes the introduction of a fleet of 22-seater, rural transport vehicles (RTVs), as in Delhi, with lower emission and decibel levels. According to environment experts, apart from discharging harmful gases that are known to cause respiratory problems, the noise created by three-wheelers such Vikrams, Garudas, a mode of transport that closely resembles Delhi's phatphatias of yore, along with the state's auto-rickshaws touch noise levels of 250-300 decibels, far beyond what humans can bear, 20 to 200 decibels. “The RTVs would be made available soon to educated unemployed youths after working out the modalities,” Dutta said.

Credited with having turned around the Assam State Transport Corporation (ASTC), one of the poorest and most ill-managed departments, Dutta is now seems set to take the rebuilding process to the next logical level, setting up market complexes in the various ASTC bus terminuses in Upper Assam, a move that is aimed at making the ASTC a sustainable business for the government. Dutta has specifically targeted economically better-off tea and oil districts of Upper Assam, for his market complexes. The ASTC which had outstandings amounting to Rs 120 crore when Dutta started out in May 2001, now makes a “net profit” of Rs 1.35 crore every month. “HUDCO has agreed to sanction funds for market complexes in several district head quarters in Upper Assam,” says Dutta.

Also on the anvil is a guest house-cum-market complex at the ASTC’s inter-state bus terminus in Paltan Bazar, in Guwahati. The Rs 11 crore project is being funded by the North Eastern Council (NEC).”The government is also looking for plots to construct inter-state bus terminuses in various Upper Assam towns,” he said. Dutta also plans to replicate his Guwahati at Jorhat, with a Rs 7 crore high-tech project in Jorhat's ASTC bus terminus. “Legislators have been asked to contribute a sum of Rs 5 lakh each from their MLA fund for the upgradation of bus stands, including passenger amenities”.

For the record, with financing institutions refusing to bail out the ASTC initially, Dutta had to sell old tyres, battery cases and spare parts to raise the initial finance for the re-building process. Permits were issued to private bus operators to ply under the corporation's banner for a nominal one-time fee and a monthly commission. Right now, there are 1,200 such buses under the ASTC banner. While it’s zero investment for the ASTC, the corporation gets Rs 85 lakh a month from them. Part of the main ASTC complex in Paltan Bazar in Guwahati has been rented out to private Tata Sumo operators and Tibetan refugees who set up a market every winter selling woolens. ASTC's workshops have been made accessible to private parties for maintenance and repair work. A courier and cargo service was also introduced bringing in Rs 12 lakh to the ASTC’s coffers, along with Rs 35 lakh that it earns from its own buses every month.

By Pradyut Hazarika and Bijoy Shankar Handique (newsfiledelhi@sify.com)

(The article was originally published by The Pioneer, Delhi)