We’re used to bandhs in Kolkata. Bandh means close or stop in Hindi and usually refers to a labor strike of some sort. Kolkata, of course, is the heartbeat of West Bengal state, ruled by the Communist Party of India (Marxist) for more than three decades. The communists like labor strikes and we have plenty of them in my beloved hometown.
The latest has not so much to do with politics but the environment.
The operators of private buses and taxis have gone on strike to protest a government order to ban commercial vehicles more than 15 years old. It’s a pollution-curbing measure in a city where children grow up never knowing blue skies and where nails and nostrils turn black with a walk of a few city blocks.
I am glad the government is finally thinking of pollution. Kolkata is already unbearable in its sweltering heat and humidity that makes the walls peel. Then there’s 18 million people fighting for inches of space.
The dust coupled with pollution makes it tough for non-Kolkatans to enjoy the city.
But with the ban on smoke-spewing vehicles slated to take effect on Aug. 1, 60,000 taxis and 10,000 buses are standing idle. Hordes of people have no way to get from place to place.
One doctor who still makes house calls told the BBC that he could not get to his ailing patients.
I, for one, cannot imagine Kolkata without its taxis – some black and yellow, others, plain yellow, all rickety, grimy, aging Ambassadors. They bounce down pot-holed streets and wreak heavily either of cheap incense or the driver’s fast-burning bidi.
Taxis are everywhere in Kolkata. And quite affordable for the middle classes.
The drivers say they cannot afford to buy new vehicles and switch from diesel to greener fuels. Nor can they seem to get loans in the economic downturn.
Such are the dilemmas of living in a poor nation.
I’m not sure what the solution is. I shudder to think what Kolkata would look like without pollution controls. But nor can I imagine standing on a congested corner, perhaps on Ballygunj Circular Road and Gariahat Road, and yelling: “Taxi!”