How many years have you been driving a rickshaw?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: For twenty-five years.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: I have been driving since 1995.
What problems do you face on an everyday basis?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: No problems as such. We work to fill our stomachs. The fact that we meet unpleasant customers everyday is besides the point here. Nowadays, customers think that we never want to take customers anywhere. Everyone thinks that is rickshaw drivers’ attitude. When we are resting or standing along the side of the road, the traffic police fine us; customers complain to the police. Today, people take down the number plate of the auto rickshaw and message it to the traffic police with their mobile phones.
Have passengers always had this attitude toward rickshaw drivers?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: No! It wasn’t like this earlier. This has been happening in the past one or two years. Since 2010, such rumors about rickshaw drivers have been spreading. Simultaneously, the government has enforced a one-time tax on all rickshaw drivers. They have enforced the switch to electronic meters. Since 2010, they have been introducing newer laws every year. These are the worries for us. Next year, what new law gets enforced and what new challenges we have to face, we can’t say now.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: Also, the public is complaining that there are no rickshaws available in Mumbai.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: It’s just a rumor about auto-rickshaw drivers. Everyone thinks that we are cheating. Every other person thinks we are cheats; even a school-going child complains that our auto meter is fast. This is all a false rumor created by news media, and we have to bear the brunt. They have asked us to replace regular meters with electronic meters. Yet, the public is complaining that our meters run faster, and that we charge higher.
Who pays for installation of the electronic meter?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: We have to pay. It costs three thousand rupees to get it fixed [when it breaks]. Besides, it involves additional monthly costs of maintaining it.
How much do you earn driving an auto-rickshaw?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: On a monthly basis, we spend two thousand to three thousand rupees on maintenance. On a daily basis, we earn around two hundred rupees, on a monthly basis six thousand rupees.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: This is the reason why auto drivers are decreasing in number. The cost of everyday things in the market is increasing. A person who goes to work earns two hundred rupees a day. He goes home and uses it to buy everyday necessities for his family. At the end of the day, the money is not enough.
Why is the cost of auto-rickshaw maintenance so high?
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: The cost of metal has increased; the cost of oil, petrol, and auto parts has increased. The cost of everything has increased, but no one is paying heed or taking action.
Doesn’t your rickshaw union do anything to help?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: The unions are trying, but ministers shut down their requests. They aggravate the union leaders. They urge them to strike. The union leaders follow, and, in turn, earn a bad name for the union without getting any of their demands. The union needs money to fight legally in the court.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: The union has its own expenses. They have to pay light bills, office bills. How can they manage to do that and fight in the high court? Besides, there is no one union anymore.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: Every political party has its affiliated auto rickshaw union. There is no unity amongst us either. Although there are three thousand autos in the city, only one thousand are part of the union.
What can the government do to solve your problems?
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: There is nothing it can do. We feel that the auto rickshaws are going to stop [operating] in Mumbai soon, or when the Metro starts. Earlier, Mumbai had textile mills. A lot of people worked in those mills. Datta Samant was their leader. Slowly they replaced workers with imported machines. First, ten people got replaced by a machine, then ten more, and then hundreds. Now, there are two to three people working in the mills. We feel this is going to be our fate too. Slowly they are going to get rid of rickshaws in Mumbai.
This is what the new laws are doing. A one-time tax on rickshaws is being enforced, without considering the model of the vehicle.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: No, they do mention the model, but they do not consider the number of years for which you will drive the rickshaw. It’s a one-time tax for fifteen years no matter how long you intend to drive your rickshaw. So they tax us for fifteen years.
What do you think needs to be done to improve the situation?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: There is no way for anything to be done. Who do we go to to get something done? The union can’t do much, and the government pays no heed.
If the government says it wants to do something to help the drivers, what should it be?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: There is no path or platform for us to do anything. No one is supporting rickshaw drivers.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: No one listens to rickshaw drivers.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: We organized a protest [on September 3, 2012]; we came out onto the streets. The matter went to the cabinet minister. It later went up to the high court. But nothing was implemented.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: We filed a case. We demanded sixteen rupees as the lowest charge on the meter. They didn’t enforce that. Rather they simply increased it by one rupee to twelve rupees. It will take a really long time at this rate for us to get somewhere. Some of us have gotten fed up with this and even left driving rickshaws.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: They have left this occupation and shifted to something else. It won’t be long before rickshaw driving as an occupation stops being an option. If I had worked as a public servant for twenty to thirty years I would have gotten some money from the government. But do we get anything in this line?
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: Only if we were in public-sector jobs, things would have been so much different. But we are not.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: The only thing we get is a uniform.
How many rickshaw drivers are there in Mumbai?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: Three thousand to four thousand.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: There must [have been] around seven thousand, I would say, but it’s down to four thousand since the government has enforced electronic metering. Besides, people must have left, must have died, and so on.
Why do you drive?
Auto-rickshaw 1: We drive rickshaws out of despair. We drive to earn and provide for basic necessities. Soon we will stop driving.
How long did it take you to buy an auto rickshaw?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: It doesn’t take too long to buy one.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: The problem is not with buying an auto. When you are young, you have aspirations and desires. At that point, you buy what you want. The problem is with keeping up with those desires. It is difficult to accomplish that desire on a long-term basis. Say you bought a rickshaw, got a permit through a loan from a small chit fund. But it takes three to four years to pay back that loan.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: The government doesn’t give loans for rickshaws anymore. Earlier, they used to give loans to buy permits and rickshaws. Now, they have stopped. The reason being that rickshaw drivers can’t pay their installments, so the banks got orders from above to stop giving loans out to rickshaw drivers. Now, most rickshaw drivers have to break their chit-fund pots to be able to buy or maintain their rickshaws. And we don’t have money to just pay back; we have to earn to pay back. Besides, daily expenses have increased a lot, so our capacity to return loans is reduced. It takes us at least three years to pay it back. By the time I have paid it back, the rickshaw is already in a bad condition, so I have to spend on its maintenance.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: In those three years, we have our own household problems to deal with. On top of that, the government keeps enforcing new laws . . . meters, taxes, fines.
Do you think that Mumbai’s new metro system will reduce your business?
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: Metro won’t kill our business. Before that [happens], the conditions forced on rickshaw drivers will kill the business.
Auto-rickshaw driver 2: We feel that we will be driven out of this city soon.
Auto-rickshaw driver 1: They will force us to quit running this business in the central city, and they will move us to the peripheries of the city, outside Mumbai.