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It’s a one-way road

It has always been a one-way road, a lopsided story. The other side of the road is dark and the other voices are lost in cacophony. But the wheel of life continues to run and survival comes with a question mark. This is what Gautam Gurung has to say. And so do the numerous taxi drivers in the city.
Every time the city’s yellow and black taxis become the topic of discussion, participants get disdainful. That there can be another side to the story is never considered. “Who will speak for us,” Gurung asks as he explains the problems faced by local taxi drivers.
Sitting inside his taxi parked in Police Bazar on a busy evening, Gurung speaks animatedly. He is among the hundreds of drivers who have to face the wrath of passengers who refuse to lend an ear to the problems of those on the wheel. “We are at the receiving end of brickbats. It is easier to blame us as we are poor,” says the 38-year-old driver who has been driving his own taxi for a decade now.
There are around 4,000 taxis in the city which ferry passengers on sharing basis. Three types of taxis can be spotted in Shillong — yellow and black, green and white (rural taxis) and pink and white.
Each taxi takes in at least five passengers, usually at a rate of Rs 10 per head. “However, our licences are for hiring and the fare we charge has remained unchanged since 2011,” informs Wandonbok Jyrwa, the general secretary of the East Khasi Hills Local Taxi Welfare Association (EKHLTWA).
Low fare is a major problem that most taxi drivers complain of. The fare has not changed for the last seven years though fuel prices have increased several times and essential commodities have become dearer. Many of the drivers who drive taxis owned by others are educated but unemployed youths. They have to pay at least Rs 500 a day to their respective owners. Some like 20-year-old Steve Lyngdoh who is preparing for higher secondary examination have to give Rs 600 and earn less than Rs 4,000 a month.
Tourist Kharkongor, who is driving taxi for over 20 years now, says despite the rise in petrol prices they try not to raise the fares because not all passengers can afford. When pointed out that passengers often complain that they have to pay Rs 20 even to travel from Police Bazar to Bishnupur after six in the evening, Kharkongor admits that they are sometimes compelled to do so to make up for losses.
“There are good days and bad. Also, sometimes there is less number of passengers and we cannot make up for the cost. It is more out of desperation than with any intention of harassing passengers,” says 32-year-old Krishna Joshi.

 

The taxi association’s Jyrwa, who drives his own cab, says there are eight taxes against each taxi, including passenger tax. “The road tax is Rs 2,730 per year, insurance is Rs 20,990, passenger tax is Rs 2,480 and then there is pollution tax. So how much does a driver earn and what will he save? The number of trips each day is also uncertain as the traffic congestion is nightmarish,” he says earnestly.
To reduce congestion on city roads, the government stopped issuing local taxi permits in 2007. Many drivers told Sunday Shillong that permits can still be obtained but at a price of not less than Rs 3 lakh. Though permits for local taxis were stopped, the number of private vehicles continues to increase on Shillong roads even if there is no private parking space. The narrow lanes, which belong to the public, are often used for parking private vehicles. There is, of course, no rule to penalise those inconsiderate owners of multiple cars.
Jyrwa points out that both taxis and state buses take Rs 10 and “there is no justification”.
The association has petitioned the government several times, the last being to the deputy commissioner of East Khasi Hills in August 2018, requesting increase in fare but with no result.
Gurung and many others rue the gross violation of labour laws when it comes to taxi drivers. “As per the law, working hours should not exceed eight hours. But some of us work for over 12 hours and yet are left with nominal earnings.”
MW Nongbri, who has recently taken charge as deputy commissioner, says she has not met any representative of the taxi association so far in this regard but “if they do, I will look into the matter and maybe consider it as far as it is in the ambit of the law”.
Low fare is only part of the problem. With the prevalence of private tourist vehicles, local taxi drivers are losing money.
“It is unemployment that is compelling educated youth to drive taxis. So we from the association had urged the government to choose a group of young and enterprising drivers and train them for better services to tourists. But that also remains unfulfilled,” says Jyrwa.
Lack of parking space is a perennial issue. Joshi says traffic personnel often chase them away from the Police Bazar stand ruining the business. But a senior police officer clarifies, saying it is because each taxi stand has a capacity and more taxis cause traffic congestion.
Parking space is another demand that the welfare association has raised. In fact, it had identified some parking spaces and suggested those to the government but again nothing was done.
“I see many private vehicles being parked in no-parking zones but these are hardly penalised. Then why there are restrictions for local taxis,” points out Gurung.
The EKHLTWA, in its petition to the government, had written, “The indiscriminate increase of non-entry paths, no-parking and no-stopping zones (are) only for the local taxi in Shillong city while allowing private vehicles to those restricted areas — was felt by the association as unjust and unfair.”
It has been harping on review of the 1,000 acre of land starting from Umshyrpi so that the government can allot parking spaces to local taxis. But requests have fallen on deaf ears, Jyrwa says.
“This is the reason why the Sohra taxi association, with the help of the parent body, has bought a plot of land at Sohra Rim where local taxis can park and tourists an also hire from there. Vehicles from outside, especially from Assam, have adversely affected business of rural taxis,” he adds.
Many villages and localities do not allow taxis to enter and some hospitals refuse parking space making it difficult for drivers to ply freely, complains Lyngdoh. He was waiting for passengers at one of the taxi stands in Polo.

Passengers’ plight

Pyndap Kharkongor, who was waiting for a cab to Rynjah at Barik Point, looked annoyed. When enquired, Kharkongor said he had been waiting for half an hour but none of the taxis would go. “And it is only seven in the evening. They do not want to go on share. Why would I pay Rs 150,” he told Sunday Shillong as he paced up and down the road.
Kharkongor is among the many disgruntled passengers who face similar situation every day and evening.
Sunee Rani, a working mother, says she never gets share cabs to Police Bazar from Laban and so she waits for the bus to come.
Gurung explains the situation. He says sometimes taxis do not get enough passengers on a particular route and they have to incur loss if they take only two to three passengers because “thanks to the traffic, drivers cannot expect to make extra trips”.
Passengers hovering around taxis trying to control their temper after repeated rejections is a common sight in Police Bazar every evening. A group of middle aged women waiting to go to Laitumkhrah complained that even police do not say anything “when taxi drivers harass us”.
SP (City) Steve Rynjah says traffic personnel often intervene and help passengers get a vehicle. “If a passenger approaches us we always try our best to solve the problem. However, we also face manpower crisis. So there might have been stray instances where passengers did not get help,” he adds.
The police department, he says, had recommended a mobile application for consolidating all city taxis during a meeting with the government. “This might make things easier for passengers but all stakeholders need to be convinced.”
But most of the taxi drivers feel a mobile application or a meter taxi will not be a good idea as there are people from all social strata and many rural people come to the city. “They cannot afford if all taxis come under the application. Only a section will be benefitted,” says Jyrwa but adds that the association works in tandem with police to penalise erring drivers.
Passengers say even for a small distance, like from Civil Hospital Junction to Laban, taxis often demand Rs 100 if the vehicle is reserved. There is a rate chart for shared and reserved taxis issued by the DC office and distributed to taxi drivers but no one bothers to follow. The taxis are supposed to take five passengers as mentioned in the rule book and written near the driver’s seat. But often drivers cramp six to seven passengers into the cars. “But that is only late in the evening when cars are less,” says a cabbie.
Donald Thabah, the general secretary of the Khasi Students’ Union, says, “It is a two-way thing and both passengers and drivers should understand each other’s problems. Things should be solved amicably because we do not want the poor to suffer.”

Problems galore

While an amicable solution remains elusive, local drivers struggle to fight their own battle. “The list of our problems is a long one. Sometimes we have to ignore,” Gurung laughs when asked to talk about drivers’ grievances. He says there had been instances when a driver had got fake note and realised only after the passenger left.
A 25-year-old driver, who wants to be anonymous, says sometimes traffic constables ask for money even if income is low. “Isn’t that harassment?”
Jyrwa asserts that there are too many taxi associations and it is confusing and the parent body had asked the authorities to consolidate the local bodies under one Shillong city unit. That too has not been done.
“To be on the road is not an easy task. There are problems, small and big. We try to adjust but we have families and school-going children. Our future is uncertain. If we do not save for old age, then we will be in trouble. We have urged the government to introduce a pension scheme for drivers. But no authority listens to us because we are just drivers, they think,” says Jyrwa.
~ NM
(With inputs from Diamond Warjri)

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