It was veteran trade union leader and president of the Mumbai Auto Rickshaw Union Sharad Rao who asked rickshaw drivers to stay off the roads on Tuesday, inconveniencing lakhs of commuters.
This was not the first time Rao held the city to ransom. But the state has rarely done anything to rein him in. The government admitted as much.
“I accept that we have been lenient since we did not want to take up cudgels with rickshaw drivers, who are basically daily wage earners. But things are getting worse. We will not allow a repeat [of Tuesday’s strike],” said Transport Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil.
So why has the government been soft on Rao all these years?
For starters, Rao is part of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which shares power in the state with the Congress. He yields tremendous clout as the leader of half a dozen trade unions, including the Municipal Mazdoor Union, the Bombay Hawkers’ Union and transport unions. Rao has headed the dominant rickshaw and bus unions after splitting from trade unionist George Fernandes two decades ago. He also set up a taxi union in 2004.
The NCP, on its part, cannot ignore the advantages of controlling the unions, especially transport — Mumbai has 56,000 taxis and 1.04 lakh rickshaws. Controlling them translates into having the power to paralyse the city. Also, with civic elections round the corner, the NCP is in no mood to anger Rao.
“All trade unions across the nation are on strike. Why single out Rao?” said NCP state president Madhukar Pichad. NCP city president Narendra Verma was less supportive, but refused to take on Rao. “A strike is not the solution. The problems can be sorted out with the authorities concerned. People should not be inconvenienced,” said Verma.