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Is Thursday's auto 'dharna' legal?

Mumbai’s citizens may or may not have to face any inconvenience on September 13, as the state transport department and head of the auto rickshaw unions debate whether or not the latter’s dharna could legally go through. The auto union headed by Sharad Rao announced that they would be conducting a dharna across Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, Mira-Bhayander and other areas on September 13 over the fare hike issue, despite the fact that the government has asked for time to implement the new fare.

Members of the Mumbai Auto Rickshawmen's Union
Once again: Members of the Mumbai Auto Rickshawmen’s Union during their dharna on September 3, which saw a very poor turn-out as heavy rains battered the city. File pic

Senior officials of the transport department called an emergency meeting with heads of auto and taxi unions to discuss whether or not their protest was legal.

Sources present at the meeting, which went on for over an hour, said that while the auto unions maintained that theirs was a call for a peaceful dharna, the government officials said that it was nothing short of a strike.

Skirting legality
“Terming it as a strike or not is a legal issue, which needs clarity although they are calling it dharna. But the fact remains that lakhs of people will be inconvenienced regardless,” said a senior transport department official.

The department authorities said that they can enforce Essential Services Maintenance Act in case these unions call it a ‘strike’, and they can also still take action against drivers for not plying or refusing to ply on September 13.

At the meeting, the government authorities said they are doing their best to expedite the process and that the respective auto and taxi unions should withdraw their call for protest.

“We have spoken to the unions to maintain patience as we are following procedure before deciding anything. The Hakim Committee report has showed us the formula, but the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Transport Authority will ultimately decide in case of a hike,” said Shailesh Sharma, transport secretary.

There is no set deadline for authorising the new fare and a procedure is being followed.

“As per the process, we are approaching and taking views of the auto and taxi unions, consumer forums and other parties before going ahead. This is bound to take time,” said another official from the transport department.

Despite reassurances from the officials, the Sharad Rao-led auto union has decided to go ahead with their dharna on September 13, wherein auto drivers will gather at Transport Commissioner VN More’s office at Bandra (E).

In addition, they have also threatened to begin charging passengers as per the Hakim Committee’s revised fare from September 14 onwards. The transport department has deemed the threat, if implemented, as illegal.

“We are expecting at least 15,000 participants in the dharna. We will begin charging as recommended by the Hakim Committee report. How much longer are we expected to wait?” said Shashank Rao, assistant general secretary, Mumbai Auto Rickshawmen’s Union.

Publicity stunt
A few of the auto rickshaw and taxi unions have withdrawn their agitation call and have decided to await the government’s decision.

“We are not participating in any dharna, but will declare one if the government fails to implement the change from October 1,” said AL Quadros, general secretary, Mumbai Taximen’s Union.

Meanwhile, consumer associations, forums and RTO officials term this as a publicity stunt. “These are pressure tactics that Sharad Rao’s union is trying. He knows that once the guideline for the proposed standard operating procedure (SOP) is prepared, the government will be ready to tackle such threats,” said an RTO official.  

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