ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Streetcars Named Jyoti

THE sequence of events leading to the West Bengal Legislature (both Assembly and Council) on one day, and unanimously, passing the Calcutta Tramways (Taking Over of Management) Bill on Friday last was certainly history and drama put together; and the protagonist was undoubtedly Jyoti Basu, the State's Finance and Transport Minister. The argument between the Government of West Bengal and the Calcutta Tramways Company is by no means new. There is evidence that even in the British days then: were not a few arguments between the mercantilists of the C T C and the Athenians of the I C S; the company's rapacity was by and large curbed by the "guardians'. The Government of Dr B C Roy was more sympathetic and signed an agreement of sorts which left all the aces with the C T C and the Government of West Bengal, to mix metaphors, at the wrong end of the stick. The company could be taken over in 20 years

THE sequence of events leading to the West Bengal Legislature (both Assembly and Council) on one day, and unanimously, passing the Calcutta Tramways (Taking Over of Management) Bill on Friday last was certainly history and drama put together; and the protagonist was undoubtedly Jyoti Basu, the State's Finance and Transport Minister The argument between the Government of West Bengal and the Calcutta Tramways Company is by no means new. There is evidence that even in the British days there were not a few arguments between the mercantilists of the C T C and the Athenians of the I C S; the company's rapacity was by and large curbed by the "guardians' The Government of Dr B C Roy was more sympathetic and signed an agreement of sorts which left all the aces with the C T C and the Government of West Bengal, to mix metaphors, at the wrong end of the stick. The company could be taken over in 20 years — at a price, a price everyone knew the Government of West Bengal could never afford to pay. The company was supposed to make an annual contribution to the acquisition fund What the Transport Minister was presented with a fortnight ago was a state of bankruptcy; the company could not even pay wages to its workers on July 7 unless the Government of West Bengal underwrote an overdraft.

Basu Fox Enough

Jyoti Basu, a newcomer to power, was further flabbergasted by the company's piling affronts. It rejected, from distant London, the Government's offer of an overdraft of Rs 11 lakhs, for it had not been accompanied by an increase in tram fares. Without, apparently, the consent of the cabinet, Jyoti Basu rejected outright the company's arrogant demand and decided to take over the management of the company. He had earlier been insistent with the unions that nationalisation was out of the questionHe now made an unprecedented deal with the workers' unions (not all C P I  controlled) that the workers would run the service even if they were not paid on July 7. It miraculously workedToday (July 17) the trams are still running.

Stranger things happened before the managerial takeover of Calcutta tramways was put into a Bill and passed unanimously. The company's Agent had suddenly disappeared The Chief Minister, then in Delhi, insisted that there must be a cabinet discussion before the decision on the takeover could be finalised, which did not exactly strengthen Jyoti Basu's hands. But Basu, no fool, acted entirely correctly; he knew that the Bil l needed the President's assent before it became an Act and took the necessary steps. Basu maintained the essential tram services going and did not nationalise the company at all.

The Diplomatic Demarche

The joke meanwhile was that neither the C T C nor some pundits of the Press had thought that there could be a certain distinction between a managerial takeover and nationalisation. They found the latter the handier expression, nationalisation; and the City of London went berserk. The shares of C T C went up by ten bob—to some people's benefit, no doubt. The C T C has threatened legal action, which in fact it could have taken earlier; but not many besides the company's not very bright advisers may take the threat very seriously. Basu certainly has not.

There was probably nothing wholly improper in the British Deputy High Commissioner, accompanied by the Agent of the Calcuta Tramways Company, marching on the Transport Minister and telling him that the takeover bid might affect the course of British investment in West Bengal; but the move was extraordinary in more senses than one The dividing line between British diplomacy and British commerce has never been easy to define with precision; but the open identification was more than illuminating. Jyoti Basu was not blinded and bluntly told the British Deputy High Commissioner what he thought of the company's alleged manoeuvres. That the demarche had not taken place in New Delhi bespeaks tact somewhere, for that would have been far more embarrassing for both parties For at least three years now the British shareholders wil have to wait for their "juicy assets", for nothing is happening except a takeover of the management which involves no major or final financial transaction The President's assent should be here by Tuesday next, unless bigger horses have gone into action and New Delhi has got cold feet at the Prime Ministerial level.

The trams are in most parts of the world an obsolete form of public transport. Only Calcuttans know that they are a part of life. It is still possible to meet Bengalis who will say that the buses are "vulgar", good only for Bangals from the wrong side of the river, the Padma. The CTC never quite appreciated this emotional attachment of a large number of Bengalis to a particular form of transport, however obsolete; and both the Government and the company have gone about the whole business in a singularly unimaginative manner. If Friday was Jyoti Basu's finest hour, it is still to be doubted whether he knew just what he was doing and undoing in transforming the city's trams.

Two Triumphs

In the weeks to come there will be no end of argument over Jyoti Basu's act of decision. If Chavan has his way, the Centre may still have impertinent things to say *— as on Naxalbari The three achievements of the C P I (M) will yet remain. It told the Calcuta Tramsways Company where it had to get off. It told the British Deputy High Commissioner where he got off. The assent of the C T C workers, unpaid, to carry on the services, as said earlier, was a great achievement. On top of all this was the the U F Government's achievement in winning over the Opposition completely. The takeover of the tramways was blessed by every single party in the legislature. It is difficult to think of any legislative measure so blessed.

 The U F Government has said that it will appoint an Administrator for the C T C. It id not necessary to attribute to the functionaries of the 

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