The insatiable autocrats

The insatiable autocrats

While the City’s autorickshaw drivers are seeking another increase in the minimum fares, there is no respite for the public from demands of excess fare and refusal to come on hire.

That the autorickshaw driver community in the City is part of society affected by changes in policies, increasing prices and so on, is something their fraternity understands well and stresses on every time it bargains.

Pushing this line of argument forward, they recently staged a protest with a 14-point demand. One of the major demands was to increase the minimum fare to Rs 24 and fare per kilometre to Rs 12. Currently, the fares are Rs 17 and Rs nine, respectively. They also want the government to fix 33 paise as waiting charge per minute. Their contention is – after emphasising that it is not unscientific – that the need arises because the prices of essential goods and fuel are increasing.

Here is a counter-argument by Naveen Rajgopal, an employee with a private company. “Prices of essential commodities go up even for us; and what also goes up is the auto fare. But it is not that our salaries increase every time the economy experiences inflation. So, we are burdened with everything they are burdened with and in addition an increase in the auto fare,” he contends.

But the autorickshaw drivers’ unions aren’t willing to lend an ear. They want the transport department to consider their 18 parameters as a basis to hike the fares. Auto Rickshaw Drivers’ Union (ARDU) president Meenakshisundaram had earlier said: “Taking into consideration the investment that goes into buying a vehicle, the vehicle’s general life span, wages paid to the drivers, fuel prices, mileage, etc, the operational cost per kilometre works out to somewhere between Rs 13 and Rs 15, and we are asking for only Rs 12.”

Their case, though, does not go down well with the public who are tired of complaining about auto drivers refusing to go to their destinations, demanding extra fare, functioning with defective meters, and so on. “Worse, not many are even passenger-friendly,” Naveen complains.

According to statistics compiled by the City traffic police for 2011, around 20,000 complaints have been registered against auto drivers who refused to go on hire; 13,000 against those demanding excess fares; 17 against those with faulty meters. The numbers do not look nice even in the previous years.

Adding to the woes of the commuters is that the officials from the transport department, while acknowledging that these problems exist, can only offer the eternal promise of solving it. The action, of course, remains elusive.

A section of the officials strongly believes that dwelling too much on finding irregularities connected to the autos in the City would open a Pandora’s Box.

Sunita, a second PU student, recollects: “I once paid Rs 65 to get to Frazer Town from MG Road. It is not at all fair that they demand a hike in fares because they never go by the meter in any case. One has to always bargain with them and if the fares are increased, then our bargaining power is only going to reduce.”

But the unions will not concede. The general investment into a vehicle, one of the union members said, is about Rs 1.35 lakh (cost of the vehicle and interest on loan). And added to this are the wages which presently stand at Rs 350 per eight-hour shift, besides Rs 56 for fuel/gas.

Given the situation, they say the government sees to it that nationalised banks lend loans to auto drivers on the value of their old vehicles. “The vehicle we buy paying over a lakh rupees will give us a return of only Rs 25,000-Rs 30,000 after 10 years. During this period, one would have paid the EMIs for five years,” a driver said.

They also want subsidy on LPG, diesel and petrol so that they can afford to run their vehicles and homes. Among other demands are to provide them with a house, enrol them in forums supporting the unorganised sector, withdrawing the new pension scheme and providing them with a more secure alternative, BPL ration cards, and a reduction in insurance premium. They have also sought an increase in accident relief from Rs 50,000 to Rs one lakh, besides wanting a reversal of the legislation - Section 304 (A) of the IPC - which prescribes serious action against drivers involved in accidents.

Pointing out that it has become necessary for them to have access to the ESI facility provided by the government, they also want private schools to stop charging exorbitant amounts.

The public, although not very vocal, are with the auto drivers when it comes to some of their demands that do not deal with increase in the meter fare. They understand that there is some validity in demanding access to some of the basic requirements. But they are as uncompromising as the auto drivers in matters of fare and other things that will have an impact on them.

There is ample reasoning for this. The public cannot be blamed. On the one hand, they have to deal with the hassles of their daily life, and on the other are the often rude, inconsiderate and cunning auto drivers, and officials who do little to change this.

Pre-paid auto stands

People now have also woken up to realise that not every policeman they write to or speak about the auto drivers, is likely to take action. They have come to understand that there is a nexus. If not everywhere, the nexus is at least very apparent at the State-designated pre-paid auto stands.
While action from the authorities concerned, despite several calls from the victims, remains elusive, a few angry citizens, fed up with the sordid nexus between the police and autorickshaw drivers, took to the streets and closed down the pre-paid auto stand outside Mantri Square at Malleswaram recently.

The issue was that the pre-paid stand charged passengers more than the normal fare, as tested by some of the passengers. And given that the slip handed by the police provided some form of sanction for fleecing, is something they could not digest.

One of the passengers, who regularly commutes in autorickshaws, said: “The nexus between the police and auto drivers really questions the creation of these auto stands. What was supposed to protect people from being exploited by auto drivers has turned into a place where the police promote fleecing.” He hoped that the cops learn from this incident.

This is not the only place that the automen are capable of exerting their influence. Senior officials from the transport department, including former Commissioner Bhaskar Rao, have conceded that there is a nexus between the drivers and/or owners and department officials.

M N Sreehari, Advisor to the State Government for Traffic, Transport and Infrastructure, had said that from obtaining permits to renewing licences, escaping penalties on unchecked silencers and faulty meters, every system has corrupt officials.

Coming back to the passengers, do they really have an alternative with the City’s lifeline run by unfriendly drivers? The answer sadly is no. Not even the award-winning, profit-making Bangalore Metropolitan Transport  Corporation has been able to provide a smooth and reliable system with last-mile connectivity.

And Namma Metro, which might provide a solution, is still at a premature stage, barely connecting seven kilometre. All this leaves the daily commuter with high dependence on autorickshaws. The automen, fully realising the situation, appear to continue to threaten strikes and protests to get their demands met.

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