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Why Delhi autowallahs take you for a ride

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Why Delhi autowallahs take you for a ride

DECEMBER 5, 2012

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Thomson Reuters)

Here’s a phrase that you need to learn if you’re new to New Delhi. Everyone knows it and anyone can teach you: “Meter kyon nahi chalta hai?” (“Why doesn’t the meter work?”) This will become an elementary part of your conversation with autowallahs, the drivers of the green-and-yellow three-wheelers that ferry people around the region.

Never tell them that you’re new to this part or that part of the city; you’re asking to be gouged on price. Look at the meter and say the phrase that I just taught you. Say it even if the meter is working. That means it’s time to negotiate. Be confident and you will only pay a ridiculous amount of extra money, rather than an insane amount. And if they do use the meter, be prepared for them to take you the long way around to your destination.

“If I can afford to spend 10 minutes of my day on autowallahs, I insist on travelling by the meter,” said Arushi Sen, 25. “However, if I am in a rush, then I just add five to 10 rupees to the meter fare. In case it’s raining or if it’s peak traffic hour, then I make it 20 rupees more.”

Juliane Seumel of Germany, who has spent several months in New Delhi as a university student, said, “I don’t even bother to ask for the meter most of the time.”

Why isn’t there a proper system? Aren’t meters there to be used? One possible answer: drivers fleece passengers to avoid being swindled themselves.

Auto drivers in New Delhi pay about 300 to 400 rupees per day to rent their ricks. There’s always a chance that they might not make that much money in a day if they stick to the meter. Not only that, rents rise with an oversupply of drivers and too few ricks.

People who buy their ricks have another problem. An auto costs more than 138,000 rupees to buy at a dealer. With registration and other charges included, the cost can reach more than 175,500 rupees. (The new GPS meters cost an extra 13,400 rupees). So why do people often pay financiers as much as 270,000 rupees, or about $4,900, for their ricks?

To drive an auto, you need a permit. To buy a used auto means transferring the permit. Most people trying to get permits from the government can’t afford it, and don’t have the documentation required to fill out the paperwork. Financiers can make the arrangements and act as guarantor for bank loans for people with bad credit or no credit. Of course, they charge about an extra 100,000 rupees ($1,800) for their services. Call it a convenience fee.

“The transfer of permit is a complicated process, so the financiers hold the permits even after selling the autos,” said Rakesh Agrawal, who heads Nyayabhoomi, a group that represents auto drivers’ interests. “They would not register the transfer of the permits to the autowallah’s name, and instead hoard them in someone else’s name, like a relative or an employee.”

This is illegal, according to a law passed in 1988, but Nyayabhoomi’s website contains a description of how it happens often anyway.

“When a person wants to sell his autorickshaw, his only option is to approach one of the auto-finance-mafia because no sale and purchase takes place without the involvement of an auto financier. The seller is made to sign various blank documents [and] forms, and stamp papers, including those that will facilitate transfer of permits … The vehicle is sold along with loan to another auto driver without registering such a sale/transfer with the Transport authority. … [and since] control of the vehicle lies with the auto-financier, he exploits the auto-driver/new-owner to the hilt.”

The transportation ministry did not make anyone available to talk about this topic, despite repeated requests.

Drivers are forbidden from refusing to go to a certain destination or to leave the meter off. With no other options to make ends meet, they resort to double or triple the fare.

Salim Ahmed, who rents an auto with photos of actresses Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor attached to the walls for company, smiles when I ask him why drivers refuse to run the meter. (We settled on me paying him about 20 rupees more than I should have).

“The meter fare price has not been raised, while CNG fuel prices have been revised over and over again. If I need to feed my children and family, what else will I do?”

Ahmed could take a passenger on a drive that would cost 70 rupees on the meter. If it takes 30 minutes, that’s fine, but if it takes 90 minutes because of heavy traffic, he has wasted time that he could have spent picking up other fares. The meters do not charge by the minute.

Vijender Singh said gas is another concern. “On a day if I earn 700 rupees — I pay 300 rupees rent for a 12-hour shift, spend 100 on gas, about 50 on food — so in reality I have earned only 250 rupees that day.” Singh has rented an auto for 18 years because he cannot afford to buy one.

When you consider New Delhi’s often outrageous traffic jams and road accidents, you realise it’s only a matter of time until the police cite drivers with some kind of violation.

“If something goes wrong from an auto driver’s end, the traffic police in Mumbai will complain to the union, while in Delhi an autowallah is the one who is fined. There are laws, but there are plenty of loopholes, and we have no one to go to,” said Singh. “Everyone has their bribe percentage at every level.”

Jai Prakash, who has been an autorickshaw driver for 12 years, said there is another reason to avoid using the meter. “If for some reason we are chaalaned [fined], overcharging is probably the only way to earn that money back.”

But Jai Prakash did use the meter when I hailed him. He said that doing so ensures his children’s education in a government school. He saves about 200-300 rupees a day.

“Earlier, autos used to run on petrol, it was cheaper for us. Ever since they became CNG, it has become more expensive for us,” Prakash said.

Compressed natural gas was designed to make autorickshaws release less pollution into Delhi’s already smog-choked air. Of course, a clean environment costs more money.

As I complimented him for not trying to dupe people, he grinned and said that the operating philosophy for auto drivers, as far as the government is concerned, seems to be “karm kar, phal ki ichcha mat kar” (work and do not bother about results).

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