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Auto strike hits hard Mumbai suburban commuters

The action by Sharad Rao's Mumbai Autorickshawmen's Union (MAU) came despite a Re.1 hike on minimum fare - from Rs.11 to Rs.12 - permitted by the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) last week. Over 20,000 autos owing allegiance to the MAU went off the roads from midnight while the unions commanded by Congress, Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena opposed the strike.

The other unions, despite a low strength compared to MAU, attempted to fill the void by offering services to the commuters, including shared trips to clear the morning peak hour rush, but it was not enough. Commuters had to wait in long, serpentine queues at BEST bus stops, while students, many appearing for their final examinations, had to sacrifice an hour of study to ensure they reached exam centres on time.

The short supply created by the strike was diverted to BEST buses, which were crowded despite extra buses deployed to counter the agitation. A livid Haresh Shah, who waited in a BEST queue for nearly an hour before getting bus, demanded inclusion of all forms of public transport under essential services - "How can a small group hold to ransom the entire commuting population of the city," he asked.

Priya Ghanekar, working in a private company in Andheri, said during such autorickshaw strikes, taxis must be permitted to make special trips in the suburbs and clear the rush of commuters. There are a total of over 100,000 autorickshaws plying the Mumbai's eastern and western suburbs. "We shall not be participating in the strike as the transport department from the state government has already approved Re.1 hike in the fare," said Haji Arafat Sheikh of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena-led Vahatuk Sena.

The Shiv-Sena led Rickshaw Chalak Malak Sena also opposed the strike. "We have asked our drivers to not be intimidated by the tactics of the Sharad Rao-led union," an officer-bearer said. K.K. Tiwari, leader of the Swabhimaan Sanghatna, headed by Nitish Rane, son of Industry Minister Narayan Rane, said the strike was pointless as the fare had already been hiked from April 20.

Last week, MAU's Rao had announced a state-wide indefinite strike affecting nearly one million autorickshaws. However, after lack of co-operation by most other unions and the RTA permitting a marginal fare hike, Rao backtracked and converted it into a daylong token strike.

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