The word “rickshaw” or “auto” evokes horrifying visions of denials and constant negotiation. I’ve only ever heard about, and experienced, the frustration of dealing with autowallahs (whom I’ll call ricksters for simplicity). This is true for most cities in India with the possible exception of Mumbai where ricksters honor the rate card and usually don’t refuse to take you to your destination (Mumbaikars, correct me if I’m wrong). So anyway, a few weeks ago a campaign cropped on Facebook to protest the ghastly rickster habit of demanding “one and a half return”. The ricksters were vilified with the moniker AutoRakshasa – predatory demons drinking our blood under the guise of a transportation service. I wasn’t particularly enamored by the title and name-calling but I thought the consumer gripe was valid.
Purely from the perspective of a consumer availing a service, this regular charade of negotiating with a rickster about fares and more importantly, whether they’ll take you to your destination at all, is ridiculous! As a service provider you have a rate card you’re supposed to adhere to and the norms say you’re never supposed to turn down a fare.
But a few people came out strongly against the campaign and very much in support of the ricksters. Their arguments centered around two themes
1. economic plight of ricksters – they’re poor and need all the help they can get
2. government regulation – their livelihood is being restricted by inept and unrealistic government restrictions. They should have the freedom to set the price they want for their services, just like other industries.
I got into a furious debate about this issue with my friend Gaurav (who incidentally relishes this sort of thing). The discussion went nowhere because I stuck to my consumer-centric pov and he, to the regulatory aspects of rickshaws. What frustrated me then wasn’t that he couldn’t see my point of view but that I couldn’t reconcile these two perspectives. I agree in principle that regulations are bad but what are consumers supposed to do about it? Worse, the Twitter debate around this issue acquired sanctimonious overtones with rickster proponents claiming moral highground with statements like “You blow up 100 Rs on a cup of coffee but you crib about giving the rickster 20 Rs more. You can afford it.” This is where the stalemate intensified. Just because I can afford to pay 60 Rs more doesn’t mean I’ll go doling it out to whoever’s asking, in direct contravention of the agreed terms of service.
I wasn’t happy with my discussion with Gaurav and sought him out again a few days later. I really wanted to understand his point of view. I’ve known Gaurav for a long time and I consider both of us reasonable people. There’s got to be something more than moral posturing behind his support of ricksters. What ensued was a fascinating discussion. The key points:
I brought up my “customer is always right” point, which he countered with the fact that there are alternatives to rickshaws. A consumer has a choice to walk, take the bus, use their own vehicle. Rickshaws are a want, not a need. I felt rickshaws are ubiquitous and have been around long enough resulting in an ecosystem that’s been built around them. They now form an integral part of our lives. Schedules are kept with the assumption that a rickshaw will be
available. In other words, I argued that a rickshaw is an essential service. That’s not entirely true. Outside of medical, police, fire, communication and utilities the application of “essential” is a grey area. It may be argued that transportation as a category isn’t really essential. The country won’t fall apart if I can’t make it to office on Tuesday. Fair point, I conceded.
Then we tackled the allegations of overcharging, which implied a meager rate card, which took us to government regulation. I agree that government mandated rates don’t keep pace with fuel prices. They’re not altered frequently enough, which is fair on the consumers, but it appears that neither is an effort made in each revision to hedge for these fluctuations in fuel prices. As a result, ricksters are hostage to inefficient bureaucratic whims. So why not let them set their own prices? (I feel that if a service isn’t essential the government has no business meddling in it. Ideally the government’s role should be to facilitate entrants into a fledgling industry, then get the hell out.) But then what’s to prevent ricksters from creating a cartel? Charging exorbitant rates? We discussed private taxi services like Meru. A perusal of their website indicated that they charge rates for their cabs per Department of Transportation guidelines and their service standards are higher. But taxi owners have more means, more political clout. A rickster is typically a standalone entity – an entreprenuer of sorts. He doesn’t have the means to lobby for rate increases or fair tariffs with government entities. In addition, there are so many industries getting along just fine without draconian government price fixes. If there is an opportunity, competition is inevitable. If competition is fair, there will be no cartelization. Fair point, I conceded.
There’s another problem; The rickshaw license. The government also restricts the number of rickshaws that get to ply on the roads by disbursing a limited number of licenses. Ricksters have to make up for the license fees even on their daily beat. So there’s a chance the rickster’s demanding more money to ply on a route because he needs to break even by the end of the day. Gaurav shared this fascinating article about the medallion system for NYC taxicabs. Instituted ostensibly to regulate an acceptable level of taxi service in New York City, the medallions quickly became a means of cartelization. Exactly the kind of thing I thought government intervention was required to prevent. You know, I would HATE to have to hustle harder at work because I had bills to pay at the end of every 24 hours. That would suck royally. And it sucks for ricksters too. Fair point, I conceded.
Finally, we discussed the morality of haggling with a rickster. I’ve mentioned before my discomfort with comparisons between cups of coffee and rickshaw fares. That said, it comes down to a question of values. Values are fifty shades of grey. It’s about “doing the right thing” and I feel innocuous expressions of largesse like tipping are strictly a personal choice which no one should ever be judged for. If you’re happy with the level of service you feel like giving something extra of your own accord. This lovely, flowery, goody-goody feeling never manifests with ricksters because they’re always demanding more. That’s what I thought. But thanks to the points I’ve covered above I do plan to adjust my responses to this much maligned and exploited group of entreprenuers. Sure, there are some ricksters who are dishonest, exploitative assholes and they should be dealt with accordingly. But what I will try to keep in mind is
1. They’ve been dealt a crappy hand
2. They need to break even every fucking day
3. I can always take the bus
PS – Thanks for the discussion, Gaurav.