Kolkata: Bapi Modak (31) is a bus conductor for a bus on route 45 which transport passengers from the eastern fringes of Kolkata to the airport.
In order to survive during the pandemic-induced lockdown period, he used all his savings and borrowed a sum of Rs 15,000 from a local money lender at a whopping 24% interest rate per month. Having exhausted all his resources, Modak and his family members are now staring at hunger and starvation.
He has been making rounds of the union office to find some employment as the lockdown in West Bengal is partially and buses are allowed to ply with 50% passengers. However, with diesel prices touching nearly Rs 100 per litre, several bus owners are hesitant about restarting services, making the situation difficult for Modak, for whom it is the only way to escape hunger.
Modak told NewsClick that now a full day of working would earn him only Rs 200 as opposed to Rs 600 earlier. “However, it is still better than not having any income. With the money, I can at least afford food for the family and also pay back the interest on the loan taken on per day refund. I was rendered jobless for three months after the polls,” he added.
Gopal Naskar is a retired bus driver whose pension is overdue for the last three months. He used to receive Rs 2,500 per month with which he could purchase groceries for the month and afford the rent of his room in a slum in Beliaghata which would get flooded even with a single spell of rain, he said.
Now, he is completely dependent on government ration. “With the kerosene price soaring, we are now making meals for two days at a go. On the second day we just add water to rice to make it edible. Many days we even skip our meals,” Naskar said wryly.
The situation is even more frustrating for transport workers in the nearby districts. Ganesh Naskar, a rickshaw driver and secretary of the rickshaw union, told NewsClick that more than 15 members of the union have been admitted to hospitals in malnourished condition in South 24 Parganas district’s Garia area in the last few months.
“Many have been forced to move to their native villages in South Parganas hoping that there at least they can manage two square meals a day, by working in the embankment repairing works in the aftermath of Cycone Yaas,” he added.
In Shrimapur of Hoogly district, Ram Mahali, a rickshaw driver said that nowadays he is not earning even Rs 100 per day, and on some days they do not get any passengers at all. A time keeper on the Chuchura Tarakeshwar Bus route lamented that during the return of migrant labourers from other states in the first lockdown, they had taken the maximum risk and transported them to the state. But now when they are facing abysmal condition, the government has become apathetic, he added.
Also read: Buses to Yellow Taxis to Car Pools – Transport Workers in Bengal Face Post-COVID Job Squeeze
From battery rickshaw drivers in Siliguri to autorickshaw drivers in Kolkata, everyone expressed that after their earning went down to nil during the lockdown, even now they are only earning 30-40% of their previous income. This is not enough to pay back the loan and insurance amounts to the banks, said an autorickshaw driver. Sometimes they are unable to earn even Rs 250 per day, which is charged by autorickshaw owners as baatchit amount for renting the auto, he added.
Subhas Mukherjee, state president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) told NewsClick that nearly 3 lakh workers are associated with the passenger transportation sector in West Bengal, who have been reduced to near joblessness following lockdown measures being initiated by the state government.
He said that CITU had demanded that the transport workers be paid an interim amount of Rs 5,000 from SUSPOW (CESS ) funds where thousands of crores gathered from the different cess funds are lying idly. “But till now, the government has not given any positive reply and the newly appointed labour minister is not even giving any time for appointment,” he said.
Further, over 2 lakh workers are associated with the goods transportation sector in the state, whose work has been stopped due to the lockdown, according to Mukherjee. The rising costs of petrol and diesel have aggravated the miseries of the transport workers, he said, adding that earlier the Left Front government used to give 7% subsidy on oil prices being sold to private passenger transportation buses in the state which is no longer continued.
Raising the issue of the cess funds lying un-utilised, he said that they are illegally amalgamated into a single account while all other committees are kept in the dark about it. “Not only that, the present digital mode of application for funds is being forced upon the transport workers and has resulted in middlemen entering in the deals, who are demanding a share of the funds. Since most transport are not very educated, digital transaction is not an easy ball game for them,” he added.
As a result, a large section of the transport workers are now forced to sell vegetable or do other menial jobs to maintain their livelihood, while a significant section are unable to do even that, Mukherjee said.
Also read: Fuel Price Rise: ‘Govt. Unbothered by Crisis Ridden Transport Sector’