An Auto’s TaleUser centered analysis of the rickshaw problem

It happened on a Friday. Having set my evening ‘after-work’ plans in place, like everyone else, I started to head back home. Just as I stepped out of the building, I noticed the Auto rickshaw stand right opposite to me, each of the drivers seemingly quite free from anything else they might have to do at that moment. I figured, ‘Why not? It would be quicker than a cab and a lot less risky than a bike!’. I went ahead to ask if anyone of them could drive me to my destination. That’s where the nightmare started…

“Nahi jayega Madam” The first guy said, with little to no energy. He just gives a glance and looks away- not for another more convenient customer, but it just seemed like he wanted to avoid further conversation.

I moved on to ask the next driver. “Arey Madam, uss traffic me nahi fasna hai humme iss time pe, bohot time lag jayega”. I thought to myself ‘But as much as the wait time in the traffic would be the meter would keep an account of that as well and keep shooting up. Isn’t that going to be profitable to him?’

I had to let go of that auto as well.

The third auto driver just looks at me when I tell him where I need to go, looks back at his windshield, and within a second just drives off while shaking his head and refusing the ride. I felt cheated, frustrated, drained and quite genuinely angry. It took me half an hour to find an auto driver who is willing to drop me at my location and believe you me when I say that I wasn’t left with a single ounce of kindness and understanding left in me for the driver by then- just sheer anger and frustration.

Of course, my plans fell through seeing that I had no energy left for that evening and just wanted to rest. But by that time my curiosity took hold over me- ‘Is everything ok with the auto drivers? I realize that not all, but a lot of them do have a kooky attitude towards the commuters, but is it so far gone that they refuse rides to us willy-nilly? To drive off without even so much as an explanation? What is it that is calling forth this behavior and leading to such productivity choking patterns?’

I decided it’s time to find out what either party have to say for themselves and figure out where the actual problem lies. I knew for sure that I wasn’t the only one who has suffered this way. And sure enough, I got this plethora of complaints pouring out of people…

The commuters seem quite frustrated. Yet they keep opting for autos for their travels and keep hoping for the best. Which brings us to think- while there are several blocks in their way, there must be some factors which drives their choice for an auto. Creating a list of drives and blocks for them, here is where I landed:

The Rise of the Fall

There are over 9 lakh Autorickshaws, driven by 15 lakh odd drivers and permit owners in the state of Maharashtra. In a country which has the second largest population, the demand for a convenient public commute mode is at an all-time peak and keeps growing further. In such a scenario, we have witnessed a rise in Autorickshaws and their drivers across the nation- majorly in tier 1 and tier 2 cities and the numerous large and small towns.

Not surprisingly, with time, a monopoly of Autorickshaw drivers arose due to its convenience and low fares in the 2000s. This system went on for quite a few years till giants like Ola and Uber emerged who gradually took over the public transport system of the country. People started to place their trust on these portals/ apps a lot more than the other public modes of transport. Auto drivers started suffering a huge loss in their customer count and consequently their earnings. Currently it looks like the online booking portals are the primary choice of the users when it comes to public transport.

It would be very understandable if one assumed that due to these circumstances the Auto drivers would make their trips more accessible and convenient, to draw the customers in and to keep up with the current market competitors. What we had not expected was for the Auto Drivers to adapt a sudden change in their behavior and dealings.

The base fare for Autorickshaws back in 2015 and for six more years after that was eighteen rupees. It took 6 years for the government to increase their base fares by three more rupees, changing the base fare to twenty-one. The most recent base fare increase occurred in October 2022 where it has risen by two rupees, making the new base fare twenty-three rupees. That is where we stand today. This hike came about as a result of the ‘Auto and Taxi’ Strike of 2022 where they refused to drive their vehicles till the base fare was increased up to their demands. Funnily enough, though this change has been brought about for them, it hasn’t done much to improve their and the commuter’s lives.

A Sad New Outlook

In the recent years, we have seen a rise in the number of Autorickshaw drivers who refuse to ply by the meter to travel a distance- be it a short one or a long one. And often, the driver outright refuses to accept a ride to a certain destination. The reasons for these refusals could sound quite strange to us. But a clarity on this subject from the drivers themselves is what was going to lead us to the crux of the dilemma.

I spoke to them on a deeper level because only with that would I get the answers I am looking for. I knew I would find some new information. What I didn’t expect was for my perspective to change so drastically…

It seems clear that the autorickshaw industry is not happy with their system and the arrangements. We have witnessed their sour behaviors and half-hearted commitment towards their job and the commuters- making us question, why are they in this profession in the first place if they are suffering so much? What drives them to choose to be an auto driver. It is important to weigh the pros and cons of it and thus I came up with a list of drives and blocks for them as well to map it out clearly:

If we analyze these drives and blocks for the auto driver to accept or reject a passenger, we see that the blocks supersede the drives more often. Their reasons not to accept a passenger bear a heavier weight when it comes to making the decision.

At the same time, the commuters are way too frustrated. A lot of the drivers have started refusing rides outright and some still refuse to ply by the meter and charge a lump sum amount at a go. The Mumbai Police has recently put some new rules in place since October 2022, where in the Auto driver would be liable to pay a fine of Rs 200-500, if he refuses a ride or refuses to ply by the meter. Although this rule is ready in place, it has had very negligible results in effect. It is very easy to empathize with the commuters here and see how unreasonable the Auto drivers are being if we entertain only one perspective.

But how can justice be served based on a one-sided story…?

Culprit or Victim?

It’s easy to blame the person who refuses to serve your needs. We might be running late for an urgent meeting or must be somewhere soon; our frustrations do rise in such scenarios but what doesn’t occur to us is the other side of the story. We need not sympathize with the other person immediately, but we should know the whole story before forming any biases.

What is interesting is that once the auto drivers spoke of their plight and we came to know that their problems run much deeper, it got clearer that they are more the victims than the culprits- victims of the current market conditions and the price control of the state and the obstacles put up informally on their entry by the present private owners of the autorickshaw businesses. Their demands are simply a response to the present economic policies of the state.

“Most auto drivers have rented their autos on loans and are expected to sustain themselves on fares that are far below the revenue they need to live, save and pay off their debt.” – Deccan Herald

In a deeply flawed system, programmes like ‘Meter- jam’ which had the right intentions fail to understand the true nature of the problem. Commuters who find themselves to be the victims of high fare prices also need to be aware that the Auto drivers are just as much the victims as themselves. We would think that a fixed cap, resulting in lower fares for the commuters would make it easier for them. But then the roundabout to that is already occurring wherein the auto drivers refuse to ply by the meter and start charging a lumpsum amount for the trip which is not legal. How is this beneficial to either party in the long run?

The BIG Picture resolution

Now when we ask ourselves, how will the profile of the possible solution to this issue look like, we would realise how deep a problem it actually is. One way to approach it could be as such- first, the length of the permit process to obtain an auto for the drivers needs to be shortened and made more convenient. Secondly, the loans to obtain an auto need to be available on more reasonable terms. And lastly but surely, the fixed cap on the fare prices could be changed to something more flexible- like implementing a maximum price cap at which the fare is to be calculated which would be higher than the current price and allow the drivers to take fares below that price as well.

Now wouldn’t this create more room for innovation and give these entrepreneurs the freedom and livelihood they actually deserve? The drivers could run their autos at lesser prices as well as generate more revenue via other methods. Advertising on autos is one such way. This could be one of the ways which drives more development in the automobile industry and lower the need for programmes like ‘Meter- Jam’ and productivity choking ‘Auto Strikes’.

But is there something one can do now?

A segmentation of various scenarios and parameters gave a clearer view of ‘when’ to expect ‘what’. This way it was easier to trace out the hypothetical pattern based on which the auto rickshaw drivers function.

Considering the parameters of Traffic and Fare:

  • The first quadrant shows that when the hours are lenient or traffic is low but the fare is going to rise high, majority of the auto drivers would accept the trip and comply with the meter. Commuters would rarely face any issue here.
  • The third quadrant shows that when its peak hours or there is high traffic but the fare is going to rise high, the drivers would accept this trip as well seeing that there are high chances of making a decent profit. Commuters would barely face issues here if they want to opt for an auto despite the traffic they are going to face.
  • Now the second quadrant is when the traffic is low and the fare that the drivers will receive will be low too. This scenario gets dicey because about 60% of them might agree and 40% might not. What we as commuters could do in this case
    • Look for share auto services near your area. In this system the auto drivers are less likely to turn down the trip because he is getting paid from multiple sources for a single trip.
    • Ask to be dropped in a comparatively convenient location for both the parties and probably walk the extra distance.
  • The fourth quadrant is the trickiest one where we find ourselves in high traffic and the fare is low. Most of the times in this case, any auto driver would refuse the trip. In this case the possible steps we could take could be
    • Building a trusted deal/ arrangement with an auto driver who would be on time for pick up and drop, with a fixed amount (agreed upon by both parties) paid for each trip.
    • Keep a sufficient buffer time before starting the journey
    • Opt for a different mode of transport or walk towards a location where you could get an auto.

At the end of the day, we can’t forget that driving an auto is the driver’s livelihood. The deeper problems are what should be taken care of for a happier and more favourable outcome for both the commuter and the auto driver. But that wait shouldn’t stop us from doing the humane thing and doing our bit to make it as favourable as possible for the auto driver by being slightly more reasonable, timely and just walking an extra mile (sometimes literally!). It wouldn’t be long before this understanding finds a peaceful settlement and betters lives, till then happy hailing!

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