New govt stuck in auto mode

There are ripples in a key Aam Aadmi Party vote bank. The Centre has refused to roll back the hike in CNG prices and now autorickshaw drivers in Delhi are demanding a fare hike from the Arvind Kejriwal-led government.

A day before the Aam Aadmi Party government assumed power, Kejriwal had promised autorickshaw drivers that he would approach the centre for a rollback of CNG or compressed natural gas prices. He even held a meeting with auto drivers’ representatives.

And all this because they are the most trusted vote bank of AAP. Some 75,000 autorickshaws negotiate through Delhi’s traffic everyday, according to an estimate by AAP, and 1.5 lakh drivers run these rickshaws in shifts.

“There is hardly any autowallah who is not an AAP member or supporter,” says autorickshaw driver Sanjay Chawla, who manages the auto cell for AAP. The party launched the cell months before the Assembly elections to secure an important vote bank.
This entity coordinates with auto drivers through nominated representatives from various constituencies. They give legal help to drivers who are victims of corruption in the transport department and to those whose vehicles get impounded or are wrongly fined for traffic violations. Chawla proudly narrates how he and party volunteers transformed autorickshaws into a moving billboard or advertisement for his party. “Nobody stopped us from putting up election posters behind autos. In fact many did so voluntarily,” he says, recalling how auto drivers displayed the party’s posters free of charge.

Hike in CNG prices

“CNG rates hiked in Delhi. Isn’t the time suspect?” posted Kejriwal on Twitter two days before he was sworn in as the chief minister of Delhi. CNG price in New Delhi was hiked by a steep Rs 4.50 per kg, the second increase in rates in three months.

Then came a week-long protest by auto drivers in the city in October 2013. But AAP had championed the cause of autorickshaw drivers. “The initial charge on meter down was Rs 19 and now it is Rs 15. The rate per kilometre increased by Rs 15,” says another auto driver Vikash Yadav.

Kejriwal had struck a chord with thousands of drivers. “The hike in CNG prices was why we supported AAP,” says Yadav. So for over three months, in the run up to the elections, posters featuring Kejriwal and the party’s electoral symbol – the broom – was seen everywhere on Delhi’s roads due to the omnipresent autorickshaws.

But later, turncoat autorickshaw drivers started to demand a hike in fare after CNG prices rose further.

“We voted for a government that works for our interest,” says Rajender Soni, vice president of Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh. But the new Kejriwal-led government also failed to reduce CNG prices.

He says the government is far from fulfilling promises made in the party manifesto.
Government promised aid

In lieu of the hike in CNG prices, Kejriwal promised to accept their demands ranging from 1,000 new auto stands in the city to renewing cancelled drivers’ permits, no confiscation of autos by police and cheaper GPS devices for autorickshaws.

Reiterating his pre-poll promises, Kejriwal also assured to curb corruption in the transport department. These commitments were made in a meeting with representatives of autorickshaw drivers a day before he was sworn in as chief minister.

“Auto drivers had called a strike on January 7 against CNG price hike,” says Soni, who attended the meeting.

Auto drivers vs aam commuters

In a letter to autorickshaw drivers before the Delhi elections, Kejriwal had written, “A driver buys an auto after waiting for many years and spending lakhs of rupees. But traffic policemen apply 66/192 Act at their whim. Three punishments for one violation – stop the auto, pay fine and then no driving for 10 days. The office in Burari has become thoroughly corrupt with officers who can be described as financiers and brokers.”

After the AAP government came to power, it became increasingly difficult to balance two diverging interests, that of commuters and auto drivers. The drivers deluged the AAP auto helpline number with complaints of police harassment and wrong challans, says Chawla, adding that drivers were paying a price for supporting the party.

In the second week of January, Kejriwal announced that the government planned to strip police of their power to fine auto drivers – a step that threatens to jeopardise commuters’ interest. He also held meetings with senior transport department officials to work out the modalities for the change.

Following a Supreme Court order more than a week ago, Delhi Police also launched helplines for commuters to register their complaints, a guarantee against rampant cases of refusal and overcharging by auto drivers. This step was considered important to assure women’s safety.

Kejriwal also assured that the government would abolish penal section 66/192 (A) of the Motor Vehicles Act that gives power to the traffic police to confiscate vehicles. But the government has not delivered these promises and the expectations of auto drivers are soaring.

The toughest decision for the AAP government is whether to increase auto fares, especially with the auto drivers’ union threatening to go on strike. If fares go up, it will not go down well with thousands of commuters who prefer autorickshaws over crowded buses.

Strike threat

“We have time till February to make the government concede to our demands. After that, they will say they can’t do anything because of the moral code of conduct,” says Soni, keeping the approaching Lok Sabha elections in mind.

He says his union is planning a strike on February 3 to demand at least a subsidy from the government if CNG prices can’t be reduced. But those in the AAP auto cell say a majority don’t want a hike in auto fares.

City Transport Minister Saurabh Bhardwaj also listed different priorities. Recently, while announcing 15,000 new auto permits for people belonging to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes categories, he said auto drivers should be freed from the “clutches of auto mafia”.

“Auto mafia is operating in Delhi, where members of this mafia own 500 vehicles per person. They rent out the autos to poor drivers at very high rental,” he had said. “Drivers have walked shoulder to shoulder with Aam Aadmi Party in its fight against corruption.”
The government has also accepted the drivers’ long pending demand for waiting charges, making even traffic jams costly for commuters.

Despite this, commuters and the minister himself think that overcharging and turning down passengers are still a norm for many autorickshaw drivers in the capital.

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