On the nuisance of autowallahs

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.

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16 responses to “On the nuisance of autowallahs”

  1. Karunakaran (@kskarun) says :

    Most of the frustration that people express is a result of a combination of:

    (I’m recounting my experiences in Chennai and Bangalore, and a few other cities in TN. YMMV)

    1. High prices – While there is merit in the argument that government rates are low, the reality is that auto drivers have never adhered to government pricing. When the govt minimum rate was Rs.7/=, they refused to ply for anything less than Rs.15/=. And that later increased to Rs.20/= and so on.

    2. Rude drivers – It is a routine that drivers complain about fares at the end of trip. They’d agree to a rate, and later at the destination demand more at the flimsiest of excuses (bad roads, they had to come “interior” – one word every auto driver seems to have learnt, one-way roads in between). This is wide spread, not just isolated incidents.

    3. Not being guaranteed a trip – When you are in a hurry (say to catch a train, or going home after dark), every subsequent refusal to ply increases panic in the passenger. I’ve seen many drivers sit and gossip, but refuse to ply certain routes/distances. The argument “They need to break even every duckling day” flies in the face of such behavior.

    4. Local cartels – Often the drivers belonging to an auto “stand” in an area do not allow passing autos to engage customers from that area. Now, I am a libertarian (as least most of the way), but I’m unable to reconcile this behavior with a free market scenario. Local drivers ganging up on an out-of-the-area driver and badgering him not to serve a customer doesn’t seem laissez-faire to me.

    Either the autos comprise an essential service, and are therefore bound by government mandate to cater to the passengers according to the government rates and regulations; or they are a private service and should be bound by implicit contracts that define such supplier-customer transactions.

    In the first case, they shouldn’t refuse trips or demand exorbitant rates – this doesn’t happen. In the second, a customer must be able to choose the best provider, and not be impeded by anonymity (every auto looks the same, and I have no way of knowing which one to avoid based on previous experience), cartel (like I mentioned above), or breach of contract (demanding more after the fact) – this doesn’t happen either.

    So they seem to be having best of both worlds, which is what seems to irk people; with good cause, I’d say.

    • daddysan says :

      Hmm, nice points. I feel the vicious cycle I mentioned a couple of times in the comments below might be to blame for most of these issues. Of course, some drivers are rude because they’re assholes so there’s no excuse for them. This cartelized protectionism is again a consequence of wanting to pick and choose the most lucrative routes and an effort to maximize their payoff from each ride.

      • Karunakaran (@kskarun) says :

        Agree. But in that case, don’t expect me to connect emotionally with the hardship of the auto drivers.

        It comes down to the licensing regimen that is imposed by the RTOs. Since the number of licenses are less per area, the fee (bribe) for each license is as much, if not more, than the cost of the vehicle itself. So a driver must earn more per day to offset the cost of license (and in many cases, the rent for the vehicle when the driver is not the owner). So this also makes a case for deregulation.

        In fact, I’d go one step further and say remove autos from the roads and substitute them with an entry level vehicle like Nano!

  2. Mihir Fadnavis (@mihirfadnavis) says :

    I have seen Gaurav’s comments in support of Autowalas on my timeline, and I am absolutely baffled by the points he makes.

    1) Autowalas are not rich, and since YOU are rich, you shouldn’t moan about paying them.

    What the Chembur? Just because an Autowala is not rich, it gives him a license to rip me off? What kind of logic is that? In that case I must ask Mr Sabnis to send me a monthly cheque so my poor self can relocate from Powai to a comfortable flat in Bandra.

    2) You don’t have to take an auto, take the bus. Buses are everywhere.

    NO. Buses are NOT everywhere. I have to walk down three kilometers to catch a bus from my house. I don’t have an extra hour to spare in the morning, and Mumbai isn’t NYC to gaze at the sunlit dandelions of Central Park and stroll mellifluously mouthing tralalalala to the bus stop.

    Not to mention the lack of availability of buses after 10-11pm? What am I supposed to do when I’m stuck in Matunga at 1AM? Wait for dawn and the dulcet hum of the first bus at the bus stop?

    And anyways, why should I NOT take an auto? Rickshaw is not a premium service, they are SUPPOSED to serve me.

    Also, Sabnis is completely missing the point – the real problem isn’t the price, but the fact that the autowalas behave like effete arseholes. Either they refuse to take you to your destination altogether, or demand an exorbitant price in the most uncouth manner. I don’t know about Sabnis, but the goodness of my heart is synonymous with my wallet which automatically refuses to empty itself for someone behaving like a right cunt when you need their help.

    Peace.

    • daddysan says :

      I’ll let the Sabnis respond in more detail but

      1. I agree with you on the moral equivalence bit. I’m not a fan of these comparisons

      2. The ubiquity of rickshaws but the appalling customer service is actually a case for deregulating them. Allow more rickshaws to exist, foster competitiveness and we might not have these issues at all.

  3. Purnima Rao says :

    I’ve travelled in autos all my life before I recently became a vehicle owner. There are grey areas on both sides of the story – government authorities & drivers. Neither party is above board as far as corrupt practices are concerned. Neither is completely unjustified in trying to wrangle an easy buck from the customer.

    I used to be a bigtime ‘rickster’ (good one btw) sympathizer at one point, because they get buggered by government policies, police goons demanding hafta, unnessary harassment by different authorities etc. This was in spite of them being complete assholes in many instances (eg: it’s raining, late at night and they see a single woman trying desperately to hail an auto – this, for them, is a wonderful opportunity to fleece). Lately, I’m not so sure.

    When there is greed in all quarters and no one is ready to do anything but take short cuts and step on the next sucker in line, it’s tough to take sides.

    • Purnima Rao says :

      Also, as Gargi said, this haggling for 1 or 2 rupees is silly. In places like NYC, tipping is pretty much de rigeur and we’d happily pay up. Here, we whine over a few bucks. But, having said that, no one should be forced to tip.

      • Purnima Rao says :

        Shit, so sorry for so many comments! Also, in Delhi, auto rickshaw drivers aren’t completely on their own. There are unions (at least 5 different groups here), which are delightfully corrupt in their own ways. It’s like politicized student unions…one big political mess.

    • daddysan says :

      Great perspective Purnima. I must clarify that I’ve not completely switched over to a pro-rickster perspective. The biggest reason is the point made in many of the comments that there are corrupt, dishonest or just plain lazy ricksters too. Totally agreed.

      Not trying to find ways to give them a break, but perhaps cartelization and unionization is the consequence of a vicious cycle of not being remunerated fairly and then having to protect their turf to eke out whatever they can?

  4. Ameya Mhatre says :

    Shouldn’t the right comparison be between the earnings of Auto driver vis a vis earnings of Bus driver / conductor in both private and public services considering similar skill sets

  5. Pradyumna says :

    ” I agree that government mandated rates don’t keep pace with fuel prices.”

    What about places like Bangalore? The government over the past 18-24 months has agreed to a price hike every time gas prices has gone up. A couple of years back it was 7rs/km and now it’s 11/km. I have no problem with paying extra since I live in the outskirts of the city but I’m completely pissed off when auto-meters are faulty. Even the new electronic/digital meters are tampered with. Also quite a few of them exploit whenever they have even the slightest chance. Off to the mall? Pay 20 extra. Urgently need to go the hospital? Pay extra. Bus strike? Double meter. This IMO is not done.

    “They should have the freedom to set the price they want for their services”

    Auto-drivers in Chennai do this. They don’t turn on their meters. They quote their own price hence most of them run empty since commuters prefer ‘share autos’.

    • daddysan says :

      Good point. As I mentioned in my comment to Purnima above, the situation has gone out of hand because ricksters are constantly living with a persecution complex, which may not even be true. The default response to govt corrections is to ask for 20% more because the assumption is that they’re being handed a raw deal.

      A good case as any for deregulation.

  6. Gargi Mehra says :

    Very interesting debate and discussion. My views on this:
    1. I do not accept the conditions by the autowallah of ‘half-return’ because as per principle I expect to go by the meter.
    2. The above does not apply in exceptional cases, like when I urgently need to get somewhere and don’t find any mode of transport within reach.
    3. The ‘60 Rs for coffee therefore 20 for the auto’ argument is not convincing, but I do dislike haggling for a rupee or two which I see many people do. How wealthy will an autowallah get by taking a rupee extra even from every customer of the day? If he doesn’t have change I simply write it off as a loss.

    • daddysan says :

      Agreed on pt 3.

      On Pt 1: If there is a way of breaking the deadlock between the govt’s fare-setting and the constant rickster persecution complex, I’d also want to stick to the published fares. That’s how it works with Meru, for example. The only bit of regulation thrust on them is a guideline by the DoT on the per km base rate. Otherwise, there are no restrictions on how many cabs can ply, where, when, etc.

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