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Chennai autos are back in the headlines after the city police registered almost 959 complaints in a single day, on April 20, against “errant” drivers who violated rules governing operation of the three-wheelers, on ‘overcharging’, overloading and so on. Police Commissioner Shankar Jiwal was quoted by the media as saying the “drive would continue over the coming days.”

The question uppermost on everyone’s mind is, can there be a new deal for both drivers of Chennai autos drivers and passengers, one based as much on sound economics as on mutual respect? The courts also favour such a course, and the technology exists for a simple and quick transition.

Chennai autos are supremely efficient, and there are about 90,000 of them criss-crossing the city. The drivers have access to cheap mechanics in Chintadripet for service, most are highly skilled at keeping the flimsy three-wheeler on-ground at high speeds, newer vehicles have nice seats, and if you are not fussy about the fares, it is easy to hail one. A passenger with enough money for the Chennai fare is never stranded.

Moreover, contrary to what some social activists like to believe, autorickshaw drivers have generally moved up the social ladder, are very aware of their rights, have a Welfare Board and woe unto the passenger who thinks they can be intimidated with idle threats.

Of course, a befuddled passenger new to Chennai has a steep learning curve on “auto economics”. This particularly affects the bleary-eyed landing up at Chennai Central, Egmore, Koyambedu, Ashok Nagar, T. Nagar and so on. These untrained visitors must cut through the information asymmetry to arrive at a negotiated fare. Periodically, the government views the situation as “market failure” and the Police and RTOs bring out the dusty rule book and wave it, though only for a day or two.

Playing the game
For years, Chennai autorickshaw numbers were limited by the permit raj. But the system has later enabled anyone with a licence to purchase a permit. This makes it possible for a ‘market’ system to operate, and drivers technically compete for passengers. Of course, there are exceptions as in the transport termini.

Acquiring a vehicle is not a cheap proposition today, and the ex-showroom sticker price of a Bajaj RE autorickshaw on automotive websites is Rs.2.35 lakh. But travel demand is booming.

The fare metre, which traces its origins to German Wilhelm Bruhn’s device of 1891, never worked well in Chennai, and it did not work for too long after the last round of revision of fare in 2013. One slang coinage that was born out of this failure was “soodu meter” which means a tampered fare metre.

(Photo Credit: Auto rickshaw by Patrick Benny- Flickr)

A legally notified fare is the basis of all organised public transport, but not so here. To be fair, costs are rising. Acquiring a vehicle is not a cheap proposition today, and the ex-showroom sticker price of a Bajaj RE autorickshaw on automotive websites is Rs.2.35 lakh. But travel demand is booming.

There was a time when autorickshaw permits were limited, hard to get, and naturally expensive because of the regulatory bottleneck. Based on the type of autorickshaw, particularly the larger ones, permits were sometimes tied to individual vehicles – you had to buy the vehicle to acquire the permit. Tamil Nadu also had the extraordinary situation of bottlenecked autorickshaw prices being inflated over those in neighbouring States and Pondicherry.

With vehicle supply freed up, aggregators such as Ola and Uber found it easy to enroll auto ‘partners’ who took app-based passenger rides. But that party ended when the aggregators turned off the discounts taps, drivers of Chennai autos refused rides if payment was not by cash, and rising fuel prices torched market dynamics: drivers found themselves better off taking rides on the street, negotiating with the passenger; some take the app-based ride after negotiating a premium now.

A new way?
The Madras High Court first bench of Chief Justice Munishwar Nath Bhandari and Justice D Bharatha Chakravarthy considered a new way, in their April 9 order in a connected case. The court wants functional electronic meters, GPS, and periodic revision of fares to reflect actual costs besides software to manage the fare calculation process.

If the government and the auto unions can agree on fares as and when a revision is warranted, the rest is easy. The ride distance can be calculated with any GPS based app, and multiplied by the fare per km – just middle school arithmetic.

Even without a centralised metering system, neither the autorickshaw drivers nor the passengers need to find themselves stranded. The challenge is to decide the fare. If the government and the auto unions can agree on fares as and when a revision is warranted, the rest is easy. The ride distance can be calculated with any GPS based app, and multiplied by the fare per km – just middle school arithmetic. This was the basis for Wilhelm Bruhn’s device; it calculated the distance and a rate was applied.

This, of course, presumes that the drivers want to offer rides without discriminating against longer rides, early morning or late night rides, destination etc. The present asymmetric system allows high fares on short rides, reducing the effort and cost for the auto operator. This rewards one party, but does not make for a reliable system.

Excessive competition also kills the system. On the other hand, a reasonable fare and the certainty of availability would make autorickshaws the automatic choice for many trips. Today, the entire operation falls between stools because fares are arbitrary and excessive, and there is no predictability. If people were confident that autorickshaws operate according to set norms for a distance of, say, 4 km, no questions asked, millions of such trips would be undertaken every month.

The present asymmetric system allows high fares on short rides, reducing the effort and cost for the auto operator. This rewards one party, but does not make for a reliable system.

A Bajaj RE auto officially claims 40 km mileage, and petrol costs Rs.110 today, while auto LPG is less than Rs.80 a litre equivalent. That means a base running cost of about Rs. 3 per km in the former, and Rs. 2 in the latter. Even with all costs and financing added, and at low performance, a fare km cannot exceed Rs.15, bringing in Rs.600. An average ride of 4 km would still be highly affordable, leaving a decent margin for the operator.

No major city in the world with an organised system can afford to have asymmetric, negotiated fares. Taxis may be expensive, but as an alternative to buses and trains, they are used with a sense of predictability in global cities.

Accommodation, not hostile litigation
The way forward for a more egalitarian system for Chennai autos is not hostile litigation against drivers, but a policy of accommodation that enforces core principles and encourages the more willing groups within the system.

In the past, in court cases such as C. Lakshmi Narain vs. Govt. of Tamil Nadu and K. Rajkumar vs. Secretary, Transport, Govt. of TN, the outcome did not help either the passenger or the lawful operators. The courts upheld the fare revision for autos in the former (2002), and it soon became unimplementable because it was static vis-a-vis rising costs, while in the latter, a plea to restrain Ola and Uber from offering auto service at less than notified fares failed (2019). Ironically, market dynamics have upended the fare model of these companies subsequently.

Viewing the problem from a class prism, some tend to castigate the ‘self-centred middle class’ for taking a hostile stand towards less affluent autorickshaw operators. There may be instances when this is valid. But there are other connected issues: many who rely on the same vehicles are poorer residents who must go for essential work, such as medical visits, and senior citizens with fixed incomes, paying heavy fares.

One of them, Bhagyam, a maid in Saidapet, had to take her husband for cancer treatment to Royapettah Hospital and the Adyar Cancer Institute paying Rs.150 each time for nearly two years. Every trip involved borrowing some cash. Bhagyam’s husband died late last year. Another issue concerns asymmetry for different groups of users, including visitors to the city. A public transport permit is a concession and cannot lend itself to negotiations and informality. Once the terms are mutually agreed by our Chennai autos and the government, the right thing to do is to abide by them.

 

 


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