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May 15, 1998


India, Cabbies and Giuliani Are All Going Nuclear


NEW YORK -- The reason India chose to resume nuclear testing this week was revealed Thursday.

Forget what you have read elsewhere. Well-placed diplomats disclosed that the explosions were a signal of solidarity with striking New York City taxi drivers, many of whom, as you know, come from India.

Pakistan, they said, may now carry out a nuclear test of its own for the same reason. There are even more Pakistani cabbies here than Indian. Indeed, a survey several years ago showed that a huge part of the city's yellow-cab force, 40 percent, comes from the roiling Indian subcontinent.

If you've begun to suspect this must be a joke, give yourself a cigar. But allusions to atomic blasts are apt all the same. The explosions occurring in those drivers' homelands are nothing compared with the way City Hall has gone nuclear on them.

You have to wonder what the cabbies thought they would accomplish with their strike Wednesday and with their threat of a slowdown of some sort next week to protest a planned city crackdown on reckless drivers.

All they did was remind New York that it can be a nicer place without them: the streets emptier, the air sweeter, the noise level lower. The number of injuries citywide reportedly dropped, and people discovered that while taxis are an important part of the transportation network, they are quite dispensable.

(A question for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani: Might this not suggest that motor vehicles are the real cause of Manhattan's traffic nightmares, and not ornery pedestrians, as you initially insisted when you erected those barricades in midtown? "Even a small reduction in the number of cars creates a giant benefit," observed John Kaehny, executive director of Transportation Alternatives.)

Perhaps worst of all from the drivers' vantage, they got the mayor's back up. Thursday, he declared he was ready -- no, make that itching -- to crack down even harder on them after the one-day strike. "I don't really care what they're saying," he said.

Surely, the drivers and their leaders had to have noticed that this mayor deals punitively with anybody who dares to cross him, especially someone as powerless as an immigrant cabby lucky to clear $120 after a punishing 12 hours behind the wheel.

The sneers when popular opinion runs heavily against him, as in his recent shilling for George Steinbrenner. Imagine his scorn on an issue that involves public safety and on which he can assume most New Yorkers stand solidly behind him. A reported 40 percent rise in taxi accidents in the 1990s is enough to make a true believer of anyone on the need for stern action.

Purely from a tactical standpoint, the drivers would seem to have shot themselves in the foot, though that was not the general view Thursday at Chatkhara, a restaurant at Lexington Avenue and East 27th Street frequented by cabbies from the subcontinent and the Middle East.

"We have public support," said Imtiaz Khan, who is from Pakistan. Hakim Ibrahim, an Egyptian, added: "We want to send a message to the public. The strike tells people that something big is happening."

The drivers feel bruised by a City Hall that, typically, did not give them the courtesy of advance notice before promulgating tougher regulations. They feel that people do not appreciate the long hours they work, the little pay they bring home, the insults they endure from New Yorkers who mock their broken English (as though this were a city filled with Henry Higginses) and the abuse they have to take from passengers who act as though they own the driver during the few minutes they are in his cab.

"It's like they are the masters, and we are the slaves," a man from Bangladesh said.

On this score, he was probably right. But he and the others taking a break at Chatkhara did not seem to grasp how fed-up most New Yorkers are with the incessant horn-blasting and kamikaze raids through midtown that qualify as normal driving for some cabbies. Even if we agree for argument's sake that the number of bad apples is small, all of them end up being tarnished.

So getting tough is a no-brainer for the mayor. And should the drivers create even mild disruptions next week, they can bank on a megaton reaction from City Hall that would overshadow the nuclear devices India and Pakistan are toying with.

"They can demonstrate from now until forever," Giuliani said, giving one of his tight make-my-day smiles.

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