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Monday, Sep 09, 2002

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West Bengal truckers, Govt on collision course

Subhasis Chatterjee

THE Federation of West Bengal Truck Operators Association, an affiliate of the All-India Confederation of Goods Vehicle Owners Association, had called for a two-day token strike on August 23 and 24 to draw attention to several problem areas. The strike, it is claimed, was successful. More than two lakh vehicles (goods carriers and oil tankers) were off the roads for two consecutive days in support of the striking truck owners' demands, severely affecting goods movement throughout the State.

The prices of some essential commodities (particularly fish and vegetables) in the local markets shot up for a brief period as a result of the strike. The movement of cargo to and from the Kolkata Dock System (KDS) as well as the Petrapole border with Bangladesh was also hit. Some petrol pumps in Kolkata and neighbouring areas ran out of fuel as a section of members of the West Bengal Tankers Association also joined the striking truck operators.

One major demand, supported by all sections of road transporters in the State, is that strong action must be taken against police for their harassment of lorry drivers and helpers. A section of police constables and home-guards posted at highways and important junctions, it is alleged, regularly demands money from truckers without rhyme or reason.

The Federation members allege that some corrupt officials of the State motor vehicles department are in connivance with some middlemen and indulge in several irregularities.

The unduly long delay in the issuance of national permits is a major bugbear for the owners of heavy commercial vehicle (HCVs). Earlier, when national permits were issued at district headquarters, an applicant had to wait for 2-3 days for obtaining his permit documents.

Ever since the transport department withdrew this facility from the district offices and started issuing national permits from its administrative headquarters at Writers Building in Kolkata, the entire process of issuing permits has become delayed. "Now we are often required to wait as long as 45 days to get an all-India permit," said Mr Dipayan Chatterjee, the vice president of the Federation.

Another complaint of the truckers is that despite the West Bengal Government notification of April 23 rationalising the off-loading of overloaded vehicles, the officials of the Motor Vehicles Department and the police authorities continue with the old practices and slap overloading charges as before.

Earlier, the West Bengal Government, through promulgation of an ordinance, specified certain minimum freight rates for goods moving out of the city. Initially, the minimum lorry hire charge was fixed at Rs 11 per km, subsequently brought down to Rs 9.5 per km.

But the Calcutta Goods Transport Association (CGTA), an apex body of road transport operators and an affiliate of All-India Motor Transport Congress (AIMTC), strongly opposed it and obtained an interim order from Calcutta High Court restraining the Government from implementing the minimum lorry hire charges. The Federation, it is emphasised, is all for the early implementation of minimum freight rates.

The two-day token strike ended peacefully but the truck operators are not satisfied. They insist on the early redressal of some of their grievances.

The owners of trucks, tankers and trailers across West Bengal will be on a collision course with the State Government unless some breakthrough is achieved at their meeting with the State transport minister on September 9.

"This meeting is crucial as our future course of action will largely depend on its outcome," according to Mr Satyajit Majumder, General Secretary, Federation of West Bengal Truck Operators Association.

The month-old transport strike in Bihar is already affecting the cargo movement in the eastern region.

The situation will only worsen if the forthcoming meeting between the truck owners and the West Bengal transport minister fails to yield results to the satisfaction of both sides and the truck owners embark on indefinite strike.

(The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer.)

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