2-passenger rule, high fuel prices affect cab drivers

Local cabbie comes up with ‘seat’ distancing norm

SHILLONG: As the lockdown eased considerably, many people were left wondering whether fear of the contagious virus also waned and life was getting normal. Not really.
For taxi drivers in the city, the change from the lockdown period is marginal as people are still sceptical about taking public transport. Gautam Gurung, who owns and drives a taxi, told this reporter on Thursday that it was impossible for cab drivers to earn enough, even for meeting the fuel cost.
“According to the district administration’s order, we are allowed to take two passengers to maintain the social distancing protocol. Even with double fare, we are ( losing on every trip. I, on behalf of all drivers, thank the government to allow plying of passenger taxis after the lockdown. But it is an appeal to the authorities concerned to allow us to take three passengers,” an impassioned Gurung said.
Currently, taxi fares on any route in the city have doubled from pre-COVID time. But Vishnu Chettri, who also drives own taxi, explained that with two passengers, the earning is Rs 40 per trip (Rs 20 per person, increased from Rs 10).
“Earlier, we would take five persons and get Rs 50. A loss of Rs 10 a trip affects us. The pinch is more because fuel prices are shooting up every day,” he added.
Fuel prices have surged beyond Rs 80 in the country and are continuing to rise. Also with losses, pay cuts and retrenchments marking the COVID-hit economy, “not many people can afford high taxi fares”, Chettri said.
About safety protocols, Gurung said it would not be difficult to follow social distancing with three passengers. In fact, he has already modified his taxi for a safe ride. He has put a detachable back seat divider with a space that can hold a bottle of sanitiser.
“I made this myself and I have put the sanitiser also. There is a separate bottle for me too in the front. Today (Thursday) is my first day after the modification and passengers really appreciated this,” Gurung said.
For drivers, who are taking the risk to ferry strangers, Gurung has some safety advices. “Always keep spare masks and gloves and never allow passengers without masks. Sanitising the seats after every trip is important. Keep sanitisers for passengers to clean hands. Use small bag to collect money and wear gloves while giving money,” he said, adding, “For those who smoke inside vehicles, a word of caution, sanitisers have high percentage of alcohol and is inflammable.”
The East Khasi Hills Local Taxi Welfare Association general secretary, Wanborlang Jyrwa, while admitting the problem due to fuel price hike, however, said for the sake of safety, the drivers have no other option than to adhere to the health protocols.
He said compared to the occupants of private vehicles where the norms are liberal and people are known to one another, there is concern over the passengers of local taxis as their whereabouts are not known and hence risky.
He said the only way for the two passengers is to share the fare among themselves.
Jyrwa urged the drivers not to take more passengers than permitted by the district administration. “Besides, the passengers should not insist to travel beyond the permissible limit”, he said.
Another local taxi driver, S Nongsiej, said that though there are problems, there is no other way.
He said the current problem due to fuel price hike and COVID has affected both the owners and drivers of the local taxis.
In East Khasi Hills district, there are over 6,000 taxis and in Shillong alone, the number is 3,000.

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