The Reign of Delhi Auto-Wallahs

As I woke up to the alarm-clock on my cellphone today, my auto-wallah (auto-rickshaw driver) called to inform that he is not well and would not be able to drop me to the office today. I said it’s okay and told him to take care. I was grateful that he didn’t ditch me at the last minute. I left home a little early as I would have to catch an auto-rickshaw on the road. 

I didn’t anticipate any problem as auto-rickshaws (popularly referred to as ‘auto’) are usually available. I waited on the road for some time. Not a single vacant auto came by. A couple of vacant ones came by but refused to take me to my office location. I decided to reach the nearest auto stand. I hailed an e-rickshaw. As my luck would have it, the auto stand was devoid of even a single auto. Once again filled autos passed by while vacant ones refused me. I walked ahead. I opened a cab app on my cellphone on the go and booked a cab. It reached me in under seven minutes. The fare was around thirty rupees more than the auto fare.

Last month the auto unions and taxi unions of Delhi went on strike. Their main issue was the local app-based cab services like Uber and Ola, who offered their services at low fares. They called off their strike after three days. A similar strike happened earlier this year in the month of April. During both times I made use of the app-based cab services.

My regular auto-wallah had been fixated a couple of months back (God bless him!). He doesn’t charge me extra for being a regular. There had been a couple of regular auto-wallahs before him for short duration, but they had demanded extra over and above the actual fare. During the month of Ramadan, I requested him to drop me home in the evenings as well and he made sure that I reached home in time for Iftaar. But auto-wallahs like him are a very rare kind in Delhi.

Waiting on the road in Delhi to hail an auto is a nightmare. Eight in ten refuse you. And when they agree, they quote an exorbitant fare and refuse to go by the fare meter. Autos in a stand are the worst kind. They are goons. In Delhi, there is a rule that auto-wallahs cannot refuse a commuter especially a woman. My brother-in-law suggests that I should hop into an auto and ask the driver to take me to my destination. And if they refuse, I should call the traffic police to complain. That is what the men do. But sincerely, I am scared. What if the auto-wallah takes me elsewhere? What is the guarantee of my safety? Once a traffic policeman compelled an auto-wallah to give me a ride, and he had grumbled the whole way.

When an auto-wallah refuses to go, I usually don’t say anything and move on to the next. I don’t have the time for the heated words. But sometimes when I am infuriated, I say a few angry words. Few times, I have dialled the given complaint number, but I seriously don’t know if that helps.

The other day, when I stepped out of the metro station in the evening, it was raining hard. So I could not take a rickshaw. Az usually picks me up from the metro station but he was out of town that day. I saw a couple of autos across the road. I opened my umbrella and went up to them. The auto-wallahs were sitting in a single auto and chatting animatedly. I asked them if they would go. One of them spoke to refuse saying that there was a jam ahead, and they all broke out into a laughter. I didn’t understand what was so funny. Unfortunately my internet was not working, and so could book a cab. The sight of the laughing and gossiping auto-wallahs infuriated me. I dialed the complaint number, but it went unanswered. I dialed several times, but alas.

Most auto-wallahs act like ass-holes (pardon the language but can’t help it) and they have the audacity to go on strikes. They harass us, charge us inflated fares, leave us stranded on the road, refuse to charge by the meter and refuse to give us a ride. Yet they think they are kings of public transport. Why wouldn’t we book a cab? It charges only a few rupees extra (except the surcharge cases), but it comes to our doorstep, it is comfortable, it goes by the meter, it doesn’t refuse to give us a ride. When I visited Bengaluru (Bangalore), I saw that app-based cabs are the most convenient means of transport there and they are actually preferred over autos. 

But every coin has two sides. Once, an auto-wallah was telling me that the base fare being low, they are not able to earn enough and they have so many responsibilities. So they are bound to charge extra. I have seen commuters abusing auto-wallahs, treating them like crap. A few days back, there was an incident when a couple of men refused to pay the fare after reaching their destination. When the auto-wallah resisted and insisted that they pay, one of them shot at him. Luckily it was not fatal.

For a commuter, auto is always the easiest to hail an auto on the road. If the auto-wallahs have not been bullies, it is the most convenient mode of transport. I have chatted with several auto-wallahs during my rides. They are mostly the hard-working kind, have dreams for their children, have families and are God-fearing. Several times, I have hailed an auto near an auto-stand and they had put the meter down. And I ask them, “You are not from this stand, na?” They reply, “No. How did you know?” I answer, “You are charging by the meter. These stand ones don’t do that”. Most of them don’t even want to go on a strike. They lose out several days’ earnings during the strike and they can’t afford that. But such auto-wallahs are bullied by their peers. They are forcibly stopped and abused. But again, when they are not stopped, many of them demand exorbitant fares from commuters, taking advantage of the situation!

Again a couple of weeks back, I left my cellphones in the office cab. When I realised the blunder, I took an auto to go after the cab. The auto-wallah lend me his phone to make the necessary calls. And before I left his auto, he asked me to delete the numbers I had dialled including my own. I was amused and taken by his truthfulness and kindness. I paid him a little extra.

So I am not saying that all auto-wallahs have negative attitude. But yes, most of them are not nice people. If the authorities are more stringent with laws and rules, the auto-wallahs can neither exploit nor be exploited. Also, we the public has to become more aware of our rights and laws. The handful of the honest auto-wallahs are a flicker of hope though. After ten dishonest insolent auto-wallahs, if I encounter an honest and kind eleventh one, my faith is restored. Only if the entire auto community operates honestly, the auto will become the true public’s transport. 

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