Life in the past lane | mumbai | Hindustan Times
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Life in the past lane

Cloth merchant Sachin Gala is a tense man every time he goes to Crawford Market to source his wares. That’s because taxis refuse to ply the six kilometres to his shop near Hindmata cinema.

mumbai Updated: Mar 29, 2010 23:13 IST
HT Correspondent

Cloth merchant Sachin Gala is a tense man every time he goes to Crawford Market to source his wares. That’s because taxis refuse to ply the six kilometres to his shop near Hindmata cinema. He has heavy parcels to carry and walking up and down the crowded road near Crawford Market, requesting taxi drivers to take him to his destination, is an arduous task.

“I have to literally beg a dozen times before a taxi driver agrees to take me to Hindmata,” said Gala. “Besides, the taxis are in such bad shape, travelling in them is an ordeal. But what choice do we have?”

This is a familiar story in Mumbai, where 49,013 taxis carry nine lakh commuters every day. While this is only a fraction of the 6.5 million that take a train every day, taxis are an integral part of Mumbai’s transport network.

But most of the yellow-tops are in a state of ruin and no amount of protests have led to an improvement. Mumbaiites’ dissatisfaction with their taximen is on the rise.

The refusal to ply, the tendency to inflate fares and rude behaviour top the list of complaints against cabbies. Clause D of Section 22 of the Maharashtra Motor Vehicle Rules (MMVR), 1989, stipulates that no taximan can refuse a fare while the meter flag says ‘On Hire’. Rude behaviour is an offence under Section 21 of the MMVR.

Usually, though, the rules remain on paper.

To solve the problem, the state government introduced a taxi modernisation programme, christened the ‘Fleet Taxi Scheme 2006’.

The new standards included a fleet of modern, small, air-conditioned taxis with electronic meters and bill printers, as well as trained, courteous drivers who cannot refuse any customer. The fleet operator would have to provide training, regular checkups and set up a call centre using the global positioning system so that each taxi’s location can be monitored via satellite.

Under the scheme, four companies are already running state-of-the-art taxis in Mumbai — Star Cabs, Meru Cabs, Mega and Gold Cabs. Together, they have over 1,500 taxis ferrying 10 per cent of Mumbai’s taxi passenger load.

With competition has come great change.

Taxi unions, who initially refused to join the scheme, are now upgrading their cabs to challenge these companies. “We are working out an affordable deal to upgrade the Cool Cab and black-and-yellow fleets. The ubiquitous Premier Padmini is being phased out,” said AL Quadros, who heads the Mumbai Taximen’s Union.

Already, 15,000 taxis have been transformed into Cool Cabs; the rest will follow suit within three years.

“The new radio cabs have made a huge difference. I can call one wherever I want and the service is good,” said Vivek Sinha, a software executive who regularly uses private taxis.

The staff at Meru said the demand is so high that they often cannot cope with the sheer number of calls.

The success of the private taxis has led to protests, sometimes violent, by regular taximen. “The government is biased towards the private taxis. They are given all the facilities and parking lots, while we are deprived of them,” said Guddu Singh, president of the Airport Taxi Union, which has often protested against private taxis.


Bump ’n’ grind

It’s not a smooth ride on autorickshaws, 1,04,725 of which jostle with each other in Mumbai’s suburbs, carrying six lakh passengers every day.

The government wants rickshaws to install electronic meters too, but the union is opposed to it. It came up with claims like these meters can be easily tampered with, there isn’t enough space for the meters, etc.

“I never fail to keep an eye on the meter when I take a rickshaw. It’s common for drivers to fleece commuters,” said Poonam Singh, a Vile Parle resident who works for a private firm.

The rickshaw union said there hasn’t been the much-required hike in tariffs, which forces some drivers to inflate fares.

“The government can take action against errant drivers if it wants. How can I keep a check on them when there is no increase in tariffs?” said Tambi Kurian, general secretary, Mumbai Automen’s Union.


Comfort over punctuality

With Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST) buses, it’s the age-old problem of a timetable that’s not kept pace with demand. “Passengers have to wait hours at bus stops. In Mumbai, where every second counts, the service is lagging behind in terms of frequency,” said R. Ramaswamy, a regular commuter from Chembur.

The BEST has been focusing on comfort, though. The BEST’s share of the World Bank-funded Rs 4,500-crore Mumbai Urban Transport Project was Rs 125 crore.

With that, it bought 644 new, more comfortable buses.

Besides this, the BEST has a large number of air-conditioned buses to make public transport more attractive. These Chinese-made buses have comfortable interiors and provide a smoother ride. The buses were bought for a dedicated bus lane project, but it never took off and the buses now provide a limited-halts-special-fare service.

“The buses are extremely successful; commuters want more of them,” said BEST General Manager Uttam Khobragade.

Mukesh Rana, a member of Mumbai Carpool, agreed. “We need more such buses so that people prefer them to their cars,” he said. The one drawback, he said, was that the buses faced too many technical glitches. Also, he said, “The BEST should do more on the punctuality front.”

Take Nadeem Rafique (27), a resident of Pydhonie who regularly travels to the Haji Ali dargah. Both the routes he uses, 124 and 125, are erratic, he said. “We often have to wait for an hour. And then, when a bus arrives, it’s so packed, it’s virtually impossible to get in,” he said. The worst affected, he said, are children and women.

Dilip Patel, BEST chairman, said there wasn’t much he could do. “The main culprit is road congestion; the BEST alone cannot handle it,” he said. He blamed the lopsided attitude of the state and Central governments, which encourages private transport over public.

He cited the example of route 202, from Mahim to Borivli, getting stuck at S.V. Road. Sometimes, he said, such is the congestion that there are 15 buses backed up on the same route but none in the opposite direction.

Commuters believe that a simple realignment of priorities might do the trick. “Given the crores BEST is spending on swank bus stops, it seems it wants commuters to wait long hours. Maybe BEST should simply concentrate on punctuality,” smiled Ramaswamy.


‘Umbrella transport body will help’

CS Sangitrao
Secretary, Transport Department

When it comes to transport, CS Sangitrao is the man in the hot seat. The lack of effective, fast intra-city transport has always been a problem and it’s his job to make sure that changes. He spoke to Hindustan Times about what the city can expect in the next few years.

How will the government improve public transport in Mumbai?

The government has formed an umbrella body called the Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA). It has members from all transport undertakings, including Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority, Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport (BEST), the Regional Transport Office, railways, taxi and rickshaw unions and other major transport offices. UMTA takes all major policy decisions.

What is the status of the proposed dedicated bus lane scheme? It has been delayed for over a year.

Separate lanes for BEST buses will be a boon for commuters. The proposal is being studied by consultants. Once they submit their report, the UMTA will discuss it.

What about taxis and rickshaws?

We have begun the Fleet Taxi Upgradation Scheme. It needs a boost and shall be discussed. UMTA needs to take policy decisions for rickshaws too.