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Russian-run taxis give Goa cabbies heartburn

Panaji:  A chartered flight from Moscow lands. A family of five ash-blonde Russians steps out, clears immigration and gets ready for the sun.

They see a taxi driver with their names on a placard outside the airport and hop into the cab. They get a small pamphlet with instructions about restaurants, pubs and bars managed by Russians. There is the phone number of an exotic boutique selling Russian liquor, canned food and even that black-market stuff and sex toys. It's a boutique run by a former model from Moscow.

What's so unusual about all this? Well, the ride to the hotel was pre-booked even before the family boarded the plane. It was done by a travel agency operated by a Russian who runs a business in Goa during the tourist season.

So many such agencies have mushroomed in the state that local taxi operators are miffed.

"They run the hotels. They run the shacks. They even run illegal money exchange businesses and bars. And now the taxis... If the Russians are going to operate taxis, what are we supposed to do," Vasant Shetgaonkar, spokesperson for a taxi operators' collective, asked while speaking to IANS.

On Wednesday, more than 100 agitated taxi drivers from Morjim, Mandrem and Arambol met Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar and asked him to stop foreigners, especially Russians and Ukrainians, from illegally running these cab services to ferry Russian tourists.

"The tourist season is the only time we earn and this will kill our livelihood," Mr Shetgaonkar said.

"It is a matter of survival. We have to take care of our families and shell out Rs.15,000 in installments. For that we need to make money. The Russian taxi service is illegal. They are not entitled to do business here," he said.

All the three beach villages are located in northern Goa and are popular haunts for Russian tourists who come to the state during the October-March season to escape the harsh Russian winter.

Of the over 80,000 Russians who land in Goa, most flock to Morjim, Mandrem and Arambol, which has resulted in the region being called mini Russia.

As a tourist community, Russians tend to be rather insular, seeking little interaction with the local community; and with Goa's over-priced taxis, which charge exorbitant sums for small distances, calling a taxi firm operated by a fellow national for a ride is the most natural thing to do.

"I was threatened by a taxi man when I chose a ride with a friend instead of in his taxi, which was outside the restaurant. He was charging me Rs.800 for two kilometres. When I refused, he followed me to my hotel and threatened to hit me," said a 26-year-old Muscovite holidaying in Morjim.

She now calls a number she had saved from a Russian pamphlet in a hotel and reaches Savio, who drives taxis for a Russian-promoted firm.

"I had even seen it in the chartered flight here. The fare was less and the ride was a lot safer," she said, adding that there are no bills, not even a formal name to these taxi services and that the only signs announcing such services are written in Russian.

When contacted, Health Minister Laxmikant Parsenkar said that the chief minister had assured the taxi operators that their grievances would be resolved "before the New Year".

"We understand their grievance and some kind of action will be taken by the Chief Minister soon," Mr Parsenkar said.

The Goa government has already banned billboards, signboards and menus exclusively in Russian which spring up in the north Goa beach belt with the advent of the tourist season.
 
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