Friday, December 5, 2008

Auto rickshaw: rocking rides

(The image is from this link... seems an official site of an auto rickshaw-manufacturer)

When I landed in Mumbai, two decades ago, during monsoon, my sandals broke. I was just walking distance from my destination so began to limp tortuously towards it... One auto rickshaw fellow gallantly stopped, allowed me to hop in, and when I covered that minimum distance and alighted to give him the fare, he refused to accept it. That was the Mumbai I had fallen in love with.

About seven years ago, such a thing was still likely to happen. While walking with my daughter I remember being hit on my chest by a teenage boy: I ran after him as he began running, a tribal for whom running was like the very breath. But I kept up, panting, angry, trying to flag some vehicles down, to chase him effectively. Only one auto fellow stopped, I hopped in, dashed after the running lad, and landed ahead of him, and thrashed him with my handbag, quite effectively, so that he would think twice again before touching a Mumbai woman. He took it silently, even apologetically, because by then a grinning, gawking crowd had gathered. In any case, as I wound up my wrath and paid the auto rickshaw driver the minimum fare he had covered, the sweet driver refused to take the money!! So seven years ago, that still was the Mumbai I loved.

These days every day I am finding that the auto rickshawallahs are beginning to change this great city into another Delhi with it cantankerous autos ... and cheating drivers. Soon Mumbai's auto fellows would be winning prizes ahead of Delhi and Chennai (another worst city in that sense because the auto fellows are so annoying and have been since I started affording autos in that city) for the title as to `Who is the worst of them all... '

Some problems I am facing and that is what most other Mumbaikars, especially in the northern suburbs must be facing (Bandra, I have found, is not so bad)...are as below:
  • Autowallahs will not come for a minimum distance. And they will not come for a maximum distance. As a rule, they will NOT come, wherever you want to go. Most are saying no just for the heck of it, is what I have realised!
  • Even though there is a provision for complaint against such behavior, I find that it can be tiresome to do that. Plus, most of these fellows are hanging outside at unregulated auto-stands. When you have a kid wandering about the complex, I can imagine that most parents would hesitate to take on such goons who are passing off as auto wallahs.
  • Meters are tampered with maddeningly. I travel often to Bandra: the fare on a nice, empty road (early mornings is the time I travel, being yoga teacher), is Rs 120 one way. I have had fares bloating from Rs 150 to Rs 190. Is this fair? I am supposed to complain?? How many fellows can I complain against.......Especially, as I had explained, they are sitting just outside my gate, watching who goes in and comes out.... and clearly have their local gangs or whatever local goons they pay hafta to, in order to take over prime roadsides to set up their stands?
  • I have had to deal with auto fellows who will suddenly decide mid-way that their `auto brake is broken down'. This has happened so many times, I cannot tell you how frustrating it is. Especially when you are travelling on the highway where you will not find another auto, empty. Or if you find a taxi, the driver will refuse to ferry you. And this `brake break down' happens usually after the auto fellow asks you what is the time. That is because his shift is ending, he must return the vehicle to the owner and has decided he will turn and go back, or remain in the eastern suburb and the hell to how you find your way to the western part of the town. No care, if it is raining. Once I got into a huge argument with one auto fellow, very politely in the sense I told him that my idea of dharma refused to accept his reason or his meter (overcharged by 60 rupees) and so I will pay him only what I thought fit the distance and his behavior: his brake suddenly started working, since he followed me ominously, abusing me with the most crude words imaginable. When ahead after this torture, I halted another auto, this angry auto fellow threatens him against taking me as passenger. Then, the second guy refuses and seeing that the first fellow is still following me, abusively, suddenly decides to give me a ride. Yet, the second fellow, whose brake had broken down, follows me for a long distance, yelling crude, dirty names at me!! This is the Mumbai I had loved?
  • Another headache with auto fellows: suddenly, since the time I take the vehicle is usually the time when their fuel stations are likely to be empty, they will insist on refuelling: an auto refuelling means joining a long line of auto rickshaws, with crudely gesticulating drivers, at the backside of the service station (that is where they are allotted space). So you are there, uncomfortably being stared at by bored, crotch-scratching men, outside smelling male urinals, in a space that is not clearly, for women. After one such experience, I have become smart, and usually step off the auto, pay my fare and walk away. But I almost got abducted the other day by this smart cookie auto fellow who suddenly shifted lanes, in the highway, to the side of the fuel station, beginning an argument about just why it was not nice of me to refuse him `five minutes only' refuel time. Imagine, I was going for a class!! (always I am headed for a yoga class in this state of absolute mental disarray, thanks to this deterioration in auto services and the men who ply them).
  • Imagine auto unions have gone on strike protesting against the public bus corporation for plying in certain areas(the Goregaon road, the last time the autos went off the road in protest)!! I find that absolutely difficult to swallow... That means we citizens have no collective voice, no union, and must be held to ransom like this? I mean these guys wont come where we want to go. And if I am to be given an alternative transport that is reliable, he will go off in a huff and protest!! Give me a break...
What may be done to improve the system?
  • I cannot imagine why the city municipal corporation will not allot valid auto-stands for these guys so they are not taking up road space. And there are complaint boxes or liason people (from among auto fellows) at such halts. A city adminstration cannot think of the city only in terms of private buildings and highrises. The state government only seems to think of space in terms of what it may negotiate with private builders. Unless it starts to think in terms of such allottments for auto, car parking (rentals, as happen abroad) the city will continue to bloat like an unattended garbage can. Or try to organise it the city will be a mess. And it is also becoming difficult to stomach such nonsense. What made Mumbai tolerable, despite its filth, difficult commute, etc are its sweetness in daily transactions. The auto fellows are eroding that and thus eroding the ethos of the city. If you don't see that as a problem, soon people like us, from outside of this city and who have loved it as their own, will desert it.
  • There has to be random meter checks: it seems corruption means the one who pays the most gets away... Suppose I as a citizen even complain (despite all those inhibitions I have explained above), if an auto fellow will pay some piddling hafta, which is most likely, he is going to be left off... right?
  • The government must insist that unions liason with citizens -- after all, the unions are not an isolated entity, but can exist only with citizen patronisation! Just like Parent-Teacher Associations are a must (though schools can flout that too) in schools, so also all registered unions must have Commuter-Union meetings regularly so that such complaints get redressed.
Till then, I will suffer and dream of moving out, to a place where I don't have to travel by autos ....

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