Saturday, January 23, 2010

You talkin' to me?

Indian Express Op-ed, January 23, 2010

They did not ask for it. But Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has given Bal Thackeray and his nephew Raj an unexpected and generous New Year gift. For two political parties virtually joined at the hip, what could have been sweeter than the so-called “secular” state government giving them a perfect chance to revive the much-flogged Marathi Manoos issue? Indeed, if proof was ever needed of the bankruptcy of Maharashtra’s political culture, this action exemplifies it.

What, one wonders, was Chavan thinking when he told the waiting media after the weekly Cabinet meeting that from henceforth those holding permits to drive taxis in Mumbai would have to know how to “read, write and speak Marathi”? Did he really believe that by doing this, he would undercut the ground on which the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS) base their politics? In any case, the rule already exists as part of the Maharashtra Motor Vehicles Act 1989 but has rarely been enforced. So why now?

The Congress and the NCP, despite having won a clear majority in the state assembly elections last year, are worried at the growth of the MNS, which won 13 assembly seats principally in urban areas. With Mumbai municipal elections due in 2012, they are concerned about the expanding base of this party. Yet, could this be the only reason for such a gimmick?

For that is all it is. Mumbai has around 56,000 taxis — kali pili taxis, or the black and yellow taxis that have become such a symbol of this city. Of these, 24,000 permits are lying unused. In other words, drivers or owners with permission to run taxis are not running them for a variety of reasons, including lack of funds to convert these vehicles to CNG (now mandatory), replacing old vehicles with new ones etc.

The government has now decided to sell these unused permits to anyone willing to bring in new air-conditioned taxis with global positioning systems (GPS). This is ostensibly part of the plan to modernise Mumbai’s taxi system. The city already has such taxis run by private operators. But there are only a couple of thousand of these in a city of 17 million. Furthermore, not all the 24,000 permits will be sold at one go. Only 4,000 are up for sale this year. So the fuss being made is essentially about an additional 4,000 jobs as those who have been driving taxis for many years, irrespective of whether they speak Marathi or not, will not be affected.

Yet, by making this announcement, Mr Chavan has put the lives of the majority of ordinary taxi drivers who come from outside Maharashtra at risk. Given the standard tactics employed by the MNS and the Shiv Sena, these poor men will have to face harassment by their goons whenever these parties seek political mileage. Just as thousands of street vendors were once targeted by the MNS as “outsiders”, taxi drivers will now come under attack.

Yet what does the taxi-using public of Mumbai want? Compared to other cities, Mumbai’s taxis are a dream. Some of them might be broken down and dirty. Some of the drivers do drive rashly. Some of them do refuse to ply unless to a destination that suits them. But seven times out of ten you can easily hail a taxi on Mumbai’s streets and give your destination, and the driver simply puts down the meter and takes you there. The only test these drivers need is that of safe driving and learning their way around a city changing by the day. Passengers barely care whether such a test is given in Marathi or any other language, so long as they get the service they are paying for.

Instead of dreaming about making Mumbai into Shanghai or Singapore, Ashok Chavan and his colleagues need to deal with the more urgent needs that Mumbai faces — water, better roads, an efficient public transport system and above all, affordable housing and of course, better governance. If he concentrates on these, both the Marathi Manoos and the so-called “outsider” will thank him.

No comments: