Violent protests by autorickshaw operators in Kolkata, buses set ablaze (Lead)

January 3rd, 2009 - 7:14 pm ICT by IANS  

Kolkata, Jan 3 (IANS) A mob set ablaze three government buses in the city, as protests of auto-rickshaw drivers backed by state’s principal opposition Trinamool Congress continued Saturday against a clampdown on two-stroke transport, banned by the Calcutta High Court for causing air pollution.The incidents at the Park Circus area sparked tension and threw traffic haywire. The neighbourhood turned into a battleground, as the angry protesters damaged four buses despite the deployment of a large police contingent and Rapid action Force (RAF) in the area.

“We’ve not been able to identify any of the agitators who suddenly came and set fire to government buses on busy streets,” a police officer said.

Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee claimed that the state’s ruling Left Front partner Communist Party of India - Marxist (CPI-M) cadres had set fire to the buses.

“The CPI-M knows that the ground is slipping from under its feet. So, it is indulging in such violent activities. Setting buses afire is no solution. We did’nt have any programme Saturday morning. And if it was our programme to set ablaze the buses, then we would have set fire to 1,000 buses,” she said.

The police said three buses were torched near Park Circus No-4 Bridge, on AJC Bose Road and CIT Road-Ladies Park crossing respectively.

Meanwhile, Commuters were greatly inconvenienced as a 12-hour Trinamool Congress-sponsored auto rickshaw and taxi strike saw most of these vehicles keeping away from the roads in protest against the court order and demanding release of 18 auto-drivers arrested Friday for violence.

The protesters also forced auto and taxi operators who had brought out their vehicles to join the strike. At several points, agitators carrying bricks and canes stopped autos and taxis and forced the passengers to alight.

“I think our 12-hour strike is quite successful as most of the taxis and autos kept off the roads. Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) activists, the labour arm of the ruling Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), is on rampage across the city,” Trinamool Trade Union Congress (TTUC) leader Sovandeb Chattopadhyay said.

A court Saturday afternoon remanded the 18 arrested to jail custody till Jan 16.

The Calcutta High Court issued an order July last year to ban commercial vehicles registered before Jan 1, 1993, from Kolkata and its outskirts.

The court directed that all auto-rickshaws, irrespective of their date of registration, will have to convert to either compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

Earlier, opposition leader Banerjee squatted all night near the residence of West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee demanding immediate release of auto rickshaw operators arrested for allegedly torching buses Friday evening protesting the ban.

Banerjee joined the protest last night as she marched in a procession and later she was stopped at a spot near the chief minister’s Palm Avenue residence.

Following the court directive, the city police Friday seized auto rickshaws to enforce the order on the two-stroke autos. An altercation ensued and the agitated drivers went on the rampage and set a bus on fire. The incident caused a major traffic jam.

The order said it should be implemented by Dec 31, 2008, in the Kolkata Metropolitan Area, which includes parts of north and south 24-Parganas, Howrah and Hooghly.

“Trinamool Congress is trying to politicise a small issue just to get political mileage in this ongoing battle over auto-rickshaw ban,” senior CPI-M leader Nepaldeb Bhattacharya said.

It is estimated that around 80,000 auto-rickshaws, 24,000 taxis and over 8,000 buses and mini-buses would be affected by the implementation of the court order.

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