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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Taxi to nowhere

The Maharashtra government has once again put on its bumbling face,announcing a poorly thought-out policy only to retract it hours later.

Written by Kavitha Iyer |
January 22, 2010 2:51:41 am

The Maharashtra government has once again put on its bumbling face,announcing a poorly thought-out policy only to retract it hours later. Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has issued a clumsy clarification — “local language” includes Gujarati and Hindi too,apparently — less than a day after he,as well as his Transport Minister Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil,explicitly said that aspirants for all taxi permits that will be issued or renewed from now on must know to read and write Marathi.

His furious backpedalling notwithstanding,the damage has been done. Because the decision has nothing to do with taxis,and will not in any way alter the experience for those using them in the financial capital.

How many residents of Mumbai are Maharashtrian? Less than 40 per cent,and declining,according to both the state government,and (more recently) the Shiv Sena-led Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s Human Development Report. Of course,the government has a mandate to promote local language and culture — but by imposing the language on the driver of a taxi?

In any case,the 15-year domicile rule for taxi permit aspirants is an existing one,and it’s no secret that youngsters fresh off the train from Basti or Azamgarh have no trouble bypassing the rulebook to get behind the wheel. The contentious,and worrying,fine print is the Congress-NCP government’s throbbing need to make what it believes are the right noises in a state where language politics has been centrestage — or in the wings,never farther — over the past three years.

It is one thing for the Sena’s BMC to decree that all administrative work will now be conducted only in Marathi or for the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena,which bases its politics only on chauvinism,to vow to batter any Bihari daring to conduct Chhat puja on a Mumbai beach. But for the popularly-elected government that bandies about its secular and inclusive agenda at its convenience,this indulging in partisan politics is another thing entirely.

Still,for every MNS-led agitation against “outsiders” taking the Railway Recruitment Board’s exams,there has been a Congress reiteration of reservation of jobs for locals; for every Sena “Shiv” vada pav ,a paranoid and copycat Congress kaande pohe. For all practical purposes,the government’s message to its political rivals — the next election will be to the Sena-controlled Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation,in 2012 — is that no electoral trick is too wily for them.

That’s a sorry report card for a government whose Mumbai MLAs have uniformly assured their constituencies that the cosmopolitan nature of the city’s slums and chawls will not change. If all big cosmopolitan cities absorb poor migrants at the level of security guards,domestic help,streetside vendors,drivers,then Mumbai’s promise is greater still — it embraces the dreamers and the stragglers. You can come to this city with little more than your gumption and be anything from a taxi driver to a radiocab entrepreneur. To turn that clock back is to rob the city of everything that makes it Mumbai.

So,that the cabinet chose to send out such a message,and also that the chief minister had to backtrack,are not merely symptomatic of the chronic ailment that is this government’s indecision. It is also evidence that the government,nearly a decade in power in Maharashtra,lacks a single new idea for Mumbai and for its people who enjoy being regaled with stories of a journey from Jaunpur to Mumbai’s jhopadpattis — in any language,really.

Elsewhere,taxi-drivers are required to know the city,its routes and its traffic traditions. Will Vikhe-Patil’s new band of drivers promise safer rides,fewer breakdowns on rainy days,better value for money,dedicated feeder services from public transport nodes to business districts,better fuel economy,less traffic congestion,or just simply a more comfortable ride? The new permits do come with conditions that the taxis must be air-conditioned,equipped with electronic meters and bill-printers,all available only in the privately operated “fleet taxi” scheme. But that is a scheme the government is still struggling to promote,even though it’s been three years since its launch as one of the “Quick Wins” in a mostly mythical makeover for the city. Despite the widespread demand for better taxis in the financial capital,there are barely 2,000 of these radio cabs in a city with 55,000 taxi permits.

Even Chotu Ustad,Amitabh Bachchan’s essaying of a Mumbai taxiwallah in Khuddar,knew when he sang the 1980s hit number “Angrezi Mein Kehte Hain” that speaking a different language didn’t change the context. The lakhs of people,Maharashtrians and others,who use Mumbai’s taxis don’t need Marathi-speaking or Marathi-writing drivers. And they know this to be another impracticable move from a state government that excels in achieving little for this decrepit city — and spends an awful lot of time doing that.

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