MELBOURNE: A mass blockade of central Melbourne by taxi drivers has spurred the government into immediate action on their demands with safety screens to be installed by drivers who want them and pre-payment of fares to become mandatory at night. Public Transport Minister Kosky agreed to the moves after hundreds of angry drivers?in an extraordinary act of spontaneous mass protest?blocked traffic for 22 hours at the city'sbusiest intersection. All but two of the demands of the drivers?who are paid on an average of 8 $ an hour?were met
While discontent among drivers has been building for years the cue for the demonstration was the stabbing of a driver Jalvinder Singh (23) on April 29. After initially being listed in critical condition Mr Singh'scondition had improved by the night of April 30 to serious but stable. The protestors who began gathering at the intersection on the afternoon of April 29 had swelled in numbers to about 500 by lunchtime on April 30. Many of the drivers who were of Indian background used the occasion to level complaints of racism against the public and the police. Among the six demands circulated among the crowd was this: All the complaints by the migrants should be seriously adhered to by police. One driver Rakesh Beri (24) said drivers were regularly treated like fools. Many who were robbed or even bashed were not taken seriously by authorities he said prompting many to give up reporting incidents
Prepayment of fares between 10 PM and 5 AM?a key demand from the drivers to deal with the frequent problem of passengers who ?do a runner??will be introduced shortly. Adham Dhillon was called a ?bloody Indian? despite being the only driver willing to pick up three young drunks late one night. The resentment was still strong on April 30 with claims that on the night of April 29 as drivers started their all night vigil they were pelted with eggs by passers-by and in one case told to ?f?k off? by a police officer. The April 29 stabbing is not the most serious incident to occur in recent times. In 2006 a driver was killed after his taxi was allegedly highjacked. About midday on April 30 the protest was probably 500 strong and protestors were overwhelmingly young and of Indian background. Many are students and are well educated and are clearly prepared to stand up for themselves
Many Indian taxi drivers are international students. According to the Federation of Indian Students in Australia there are about 5000 in Melbourne driving part time between studies. Tertiary institutions now court international students as full fee payers and FISA secretary Gautam Gupta says students choose to drive taxis because the hours are flexible and jobs like cleaning are easy to get. The Indian students have often been punched, stabbed, kicked and hit with weapons. Many attacks had a racial element. A lot of them are called a ?black bastard? or something similar. There have been up to 20 assaults a week on the Indian students. Gupta of the students federation says because drivers are increasingly assaulted, robbed and racially abused there is more evidence of depression or even suicidal thoughts in the young community. ?The drivers I have spoken to cannot be bothered about anything more?. Gupta says: ?They are crying; they want to go home.?
(Based on a report in The Age, Melbourne.)