Traffic in the eastern metropolis has virtually come to a standstill, thanks to the withdrawal of a majority of buses from routine service for election duty as the Lok Sabha elections enter the climactic final phase in West Bengal.
Since the April 17 start of the polls in Bengal, the number of state-owned and private operated buses - over 8,000 ply in Kolkata on a given day - have trickled down to 40% as the days inch towards the May 12 polls. It's no wonder that even on a busy weekday, the buses that add to the hustle and bustle are missing.
Barring office hours, the streets, including the arterial roads, wear a deserted look. Even the mini-buses can be seen bursting at the seams as harassed commuters compete to get on that last bus. And this chaos will continue till May 12, said operators.
The Joint Council of Bus Syndicate, one of the largest bus operators in the state, runs a staggering 37,000 buses across Bengal, including 8,000 in the state capital itself. "This number will further decrease. Over 60% have been requisitioned by the Election Commission and the police for poll duty," Tapan Banerjee, joint secretary, Joint Council of Bus Syndicate, told IANS.
Of the 40% in operation, many are unable to keep up with routine service due to the heat. "The number of buses that ply in the afternoon are lesser as drivers have difficulty because of the high temperatures," he said. Similarly, "almost all" of the buses, affiliated to the Bengal Bus Syndicate (BBS), have been deployed for election duty, ferrying polling agents and police personnel.
"We operate 21,500 buses across Bengal and around 7,500 in Kolkata, Howrah and neighbouring districts. More than 90% are off civilian duty now. "Though they will be back from May 13 the numbers will be inadequate to service the public. We are already experiencing overcrowding in the few buses that are plying," Deepak Kanti Sarkar of BBS told IANS.
"However, for women travelling late, this is very inconvenient," she said. What has happened in the wake of non-availability of buses is that the yellow taxis and the white-blue no-refusal cabs have seen an increased passenger demand despite their comparatively pricey ride.
The Kolkata Metro, which connects the central part of the city with its suburban extremities, has seen a surge in commuters as well as in the number of trains. "The passengers have increased due to the scarcity of buses," RN Mahapatra, chief public relations officer of Kolkata Metro Railway, told IANS.
Similar is the demand for auto services, which have also seen more commuters opting for the bumpy rides. "I travel from south of the city to the fringes in the east by AC buses regularly, but because they are so far and few, I have to break my journey via auto and metro," Radha Singh, a software expert, told IANS near the Dum Dum airport.
Moreover, car rental services, are also cashing in on the paucity of buses. Residents of housing societies have also taken to carpools. Adding to their woes is the summer that has witnessed record high temperatures this year. Thankfully, with the weekend preceding the May 12 poll date, which itself is a public holiday, residents will not have to worry about school or office. But for the bus operators, there is little respite.
According to Banerjee, operators in other states are being paid almost double for using their services for poll duty. "In Bengal, one bus per day is compensated by Rs.1,660 whereas in states like Jharkhand, it is nearly double. Even the drivers are paid only Rs.125 per day for food.
"We had approached the Election Commission of India to bring this remuneration on the same scale for all states but we were told the state government has decided it," Banerjee told IANS, adding the poll panel should draw a framework for equal remuneration in all states.