Fare History – The Shillong Times

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By Uma Purkayastha

Shillong began its urban journey as the capital of the new province of Assam in 1874. Although it was a capital in name, it was not properly equipped with urban type amenities. The newly dug gravel roads from the hill station were bumpy and undriveable. The only local means of communication was the ox or pony cart known as the tanga service.

At this time, British officers also had to use the thong service for transportation and local communication. In April 1901, Swami Vivekananda came to Shillong from Guwahati in a pony cart. The journey, with intervals, took him nearly three days. He returned after a month in the same mode of transport.

Over time, the Shillong-Guwahati road was concreted for bus service to start in 1906. The roads in Shillong were gradually paved, although some sported partial asphalt. Countless private cars belonging to British officers and some aristocratic natives used these roads. Most people were pedestrians.

The local taxi service in Shillong started in 1938 and the first taxi was owned by Dharneswar Mazumdar (Ref: ‘A Dream Meeting’ by Kalpana Gupta, former journalist of Ananda Bazar Patrika).

City bus service as a form of local transport in Shillong began in the mid-1940s, senior citizens said. The fare was 1 anna for every mile flown. When the paise or decimal system was introduced in 1957, the bus fare increased to 12 paisa from point to point, such as Laban to Police Bazar or Laban to Bara Bazar. A good number of people started to travel by city bus, but students and office workers preferred to walk to their destination. Only a few taxis offered local rides at a minimum rate of Rs 2 from Laban to Police Bazar for the whole taxi. The taxi drivers were then very nice and wise. I remember with respect some of the dignified taxi drivers of the late 1960s.

The number of taxis in the city increased gradually. Office workers in a hurry collectively hired a taxi, paying 25 or 50 paise each. A city bus usually ran at 30-minute intervals on most routes, prompting people to opt for taxis in emergencies.

Until 1975 private cars were countable in Shillong. Not all senior civil servants or deputies were entitled to an official vehicle for their personal use. Some doctors had their own car to treat patients faster, but it was not affordable for everyone. Thus, the traffic in the city was manageable; there was no congestion on the roads as we see today. The general public could walk freely and safely until late at night. Students could arrive at school on time without encountering traffic problems. Road accidents were rare.

Shillong’s population began to increase rapidly in the late 1970s, as did the number of local taxis. Young taxi drivers or unpolite city bus drivers sometimes behaved badly with passengers and created unpleasant situations. They wouldn’t even spare worthy older women. If someone was grumbling about slow or rough driving, a driver would make comments such as, “Itne phutani tob bus may kiu? Helicopter se jao…”

But there were plenty of public transport operators who were gentle and well mannered.

One of my worst experiences with a taxi driver was in July 1980. I had returned from the HS Government Girls’ School in Jail Road with six bundles of semester exam answers. I was eagerly waiting for a taxi as it was raining heavily and only a ‘reserved’ taxi would take me back to Bishnupur. The taxi driver, barely in his twenties, demanded Rs. 50, a very good sum at the time. I accepted reluctantly, mainly because of the important exam scripts. When the taxi reached the IGP point, people with luggage waved it over. The taxi stopped and the driver spoke to them in a language I didn’t understand. Without hesitation, he welcomed six men into the taxi, completely unaware of my existence. They pushed me roughly, pressing me against the door. The windows were closed due to the rain and I felt very stuffy. My co-passengers’ wet clothes and umbrellas were damaging the exam papers. I remained helpless patient.

To my surprise the driver asked me to get off at Garrison Point as he would be heading to Mawprem with the passengers. I strongly protested as I had booked the taxi first, and insisted on being dropped off at my destination first. The driver was adamant and said his taxi would run on his sweet will. He got out of the taxi, opened the door and almost ordered me to get out without fail. He muttered, “Why should I miss winning more from the other passengers?”

He asked me the price. I paid him Rs 25 as he had brought me half the distance but he rudely demanded the full amount fixed at the time of hiring. The other taxi passengers were like stupid dolls. None of them said a single word in my favor. I paid the full amount to the driver and said, “I’ll complain.” He challenged me to do so, laughed sinisterly, and left with the passengers.

It was still raining heavily and no taxis were available. I was overwhelmed by the big bundles of exam papers and an umbrella struggling to keep them from getting wet. I managed to get home after a long wait. I felt so humiliated that I filed a complaint at the main police station against the driver.

The next morning I went to school as usual. Suddenly, a policeman came to see me to ask me for the FIR that I had registered. I told him the story in detail. He left and returned within the hour with the culprit for identification. I recognized him instantly. The policeman said he would be punished and his license would be permanently seized. The driver fell on my feet and asked for forgiveness with tears in his eyes. He promised never to do with any passenger what he did with me.

There are also good experiences.

Shillong went through a critical phase in 1992. There would be a curfew from time to time to maintain peace and order in the town. Schools and colleges have been closed indefinitely. But as a school principal, I had to report regularly to the office. One day, the curfew was abruptly imposed at 4 p.m. while I was busy in the office. I was in a pickle. There was no guarantee that the curfew would be relaxed and we didn’t have a phone at school. The office staff and I were worried about how to get home. We had no choice but to wait helplessly for the curfew to be relaxed. It was for two hours starting at 5:30 p.m. I rushed home but there was no taxi around. I walked towards the main road to Police Bazar. It was almost dark and it was getting darker and darker. Fortunately, I spotted a taxi parked in front of the transport office. The driver was a middle-aged man. I approached him and sincerely invited him to Bishnupur. He looked at me for a moment and motioned for me to sit in the cab. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sat down, the faces of my children flashing in my eyes. They had not long since lost their father.

The taxi driver didn’t say a word to me as he drove at full throttle. I was surprised when it took a turn to GS Road. The road from Jail Road to Laban was open to all vehicles in 1992. The silence of the driver had already made me nervous and the wrong turn he took shook me. I shouted and asked the driver why he was going the wrong way. The driver turned his face angrily towards me and waved his finger at me to shut up. I got scared and I was sweating and shaking. The taxi took another turn at Butcher Road, crossing Sani Mandir. The whole section of the GS road was dark and deserted. Butcher Road was very dreadful in 1992. There were no street lights, no residential areas like today. Dense forest lined the road, known for several incidents. The driver was staring again and again, and I felt like he was staring at me. I wore a gold chain and a pair of gold bracelets. I shuddered at the thought of being murdered, my ornaments torn off. I could even view the news of my unnatural death in the newspapers. I tried to scream but my throat was dry. I started praying to God. Moments later, I saw a ray of light; it was Rhino Point. I had almost reached my destination. Tears were streaming down my cheeks. I wiped them away with relief when I got home.

The driver then opened his mouth. “Madam, you don’t know how many risks I had to take to bring you here. Every moment, I was afraid that disbelievers would follow me. I brutally stopped you from speaking so that no one could hear your voice, which could be dangerous. Please excuse me for my rudeness. I’m relieved you’re home safe,” he said.

I was so touched that I grabbed her hands and burst into tears. He consoled me! I offered him Rs 100 but he only took Rs 20 as fare due. I insisted on paying Rs 80 more but he refused. I could never forget the man who looked like Satan but turned out to be God. Taxi drivers and other public transport operators like him make Shillong shine and keep faith in humanity.

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