The Auto Wala’s Tale

“Auto, Auto” flew the cries across the street as commuters scurried around for an empty vehicle. The ones which did come by never stopped, simply slowed down enough to hear the name of the place one wanted to go to. If it was to their liking then it would speed to a halt around 20 feet away from the passenger, who would clutch at his or her bags, and run before anyone else offered a more lucrative ride. Else, there wasn’t even the courtesy of refusal, the auto simply accelerated and zoomed out of view.

There was an inching line of commuters proceeding ahead to ensure that ambushing the first empty auto would be a successful attempt. The line had already moved long beyond Kurla station and was threatening to enter the bylanes of a crowded bazaar. She had been waiting for 20 minutes now, with the laptop bag weighing against her drenched kurta. Why does every morning have to be a lesson in street-smartness, she wondered in vain. Can’t a citizen simply have other worries on their minds and not be at one’s auto catching best to get to office for a day’s work?

300 more seconds buzzed by, each longer than the earlier one, and she realized that this was not getting anywhere. She brazenly pushed towards the beginning of the competition line, and waited for the appearance of the next empty auto. Soon enough an auto inched its way into the lane, but instead of stopping at the beginning of the line flocked by the gang of passengers, it pushed its way ahead. Determinedly, she followed and asked if Vakola was on his mind of destinations today. An indifferent silence, the kind perfected by auto drivers who couldn’t be less bothered with getting the next ride. Not to be deterred, she waited till the passenger stepped out, and immediately plonked herself in the vehicle. “Where do you want to go” asked the flustered driver, as if affronted by a deep invasion of privacy. “Santa cruz” like I have been telling you for the last 2 minutes, she retorted. There was a second of pregnant uncertainty, with thoughts ranging in the two extremes — should I kick this insolent girl out and am I going to be kicked out back into the begging zone??? “You have to give me 50 rupees” — came the retort. Bargaining when one is desperate is never a wise tactic, but nevertheless there was no way she could simply give into paying more than what was fair. “But why? I will give you Rs. 20 more than the meter, lets see what the fare comes up to” was offered as a fair response. A second foreboding pause followed, but then there a gradual whirl of the auto’s gear and the ride was on.

The delights of being aboard a moving vehicle can be a powerful incentive. All the feelings of rage, helplessness and irritation washed away as the buildings and commuters sped past her auto. Feeling chatty, she struck a conversation with the auto wala. “So is the auto strike over finally, or will there be more strikes?” For the past couple of days, there had been adhoc strikes across the city at the government’s attempt to improve transparency through random meter checks. What seemed like a revolutionary brilliant step in accountability had been rejected by civil society themselves, the auto-walas were outraged and voluntarily opting to strike even without any union leadership.

“Yesterday we have presented our charter of demands to the government, and they will reply to us soon. If we do not hear a favourable response, we will need to go on strike again”; the auto wala seemed clear and confident in his support of the strike. “But don’t you that random checks are not a bad idea at all, why should any auto meter be tampered in the first place,” she asked indignantly? “It is not about the meters any more maam, we have asked for the minimum fare to be raised.” And then the story came gushing out. “We do not like asking for more fare from the passengers any more than you, but we are compelled to. Things are just getting too expensive for us to survive in this business”. “But you are indeed in a business, you do agree” she exclaimed, “then why are you asking for the status of public servants from the government? That is only for salaried employees working in the government services”.

“Maam, without autos, how will people go to work in a big city like Mumbai? Can everyone afford a car? The trains do help, but after that how can one reach office or home without auto services? The buses are too crowded and too few in number. Aren’t we too providing an essential service?

“Business is very uncertain for us, maam. We do get a lot of passengers in the morning during office hours, but after 12 there are barely any rides to be taken. I take out this auto at 8 in the morning, and have to return it to the owner at 3pm for another auto wala. For this, I have to pay him rent of Rs. 170 every day, no matter how much I earn.” This was a revelation, for she had always known that these auto-drivers owned their vehicles. “So the second driver also pays a similar rent”, she asked, now intrigued? “Yes, the owner earns Rs. 340 per day just by giving these vehicles on rent. Nowadays, the vehicle license for running the auto requires one to pay Rs. 90,000. To top that, it has to be renewed every 3 years, and there is no guarantee that it will get renewed or not. The auto in itself costs around 3–4 lakhs. We cannot afford so much.”

The numbers were rather steep, she thought. How can an annual license cost Rs.30000? It basically meant that every day, someone was paying Rs. 100 just for the vehicle to be on the road, even if it was non-functional for around 65 days. “Why is the license so expensive” she asked naively. “The license does not cost anything, it just involves some paperwork. But the bribe rates have gone up” explained the auto wala. “Even the bribe rates for renewing our drivers’ licences have gone up to 20,000 which too have to be renewed every 3 years. Take a look.” He passed his drivers’ license and true enough there was a stamp for every 3 years, 2002, 2005, 2008, and now 2011. “But that doesn’t make any sense,” she mused, “I have a driver’s license which is valid for 20 years. Why should yours be any different”. “We have to get ours renewed every 3 years, that’s all I know” replied the auto wala, “you saw the stamp right?” perhaps wondering if she was as literate as she looked.

“I pay Rs. 3500 for a tiny room, which is shared by 10 of us, in a slum near Bandra. 5 of us sleep when the others are on duty and when they return in the morning, we are off! I also have to send money to my family in a village in Bihar. But it was not always this bad. I used to once be a driver with a company. I had a salary of Rs. 10, 000 per month and our work was not so hectic too.” “Then why did you leave that job”, she asked piqued at the obvious degradation of his employment status.

“I lost everything in the attempt to go abroad. I had once made arrangements to go to Dubai to make my some money. There was a driver’s job and I had done all the processing. Even the passport and the visa had come,” he said wistfully. “And then”, she nudged. “At the airport, we had reached with all our bags packed. The agent had come with us, and he asked us to wait outside, as he went in and got the tickets. He went, but never came back. He had Rs.80,000 from each one of us for the tickets.”

Even for a salaried professional, Rs.80,000 is a huge sum of money, she pondered. If she herself would have been deeply affected at the loss of such a sum of money, it must be a nigh impossible task for this man to reclaim the amount and restart his life. It would set him back by at least 10 years, if not more. Such a hefty price for a dream which had been crushed by fate. She looked closely at the auto driver; he did not look more than 28 years of age, but the face was lined and hardened as only poverty could.

“After that we went back so many times to the agent’s house in search of getting our money back. He was from our slum only. His wife and children are still there, but they keep saying that the husband is absconding and they don’t have any news”. By this time, the destination had arrived. She passed on Rs. 50 to pay him as promised, without even glancing at the meter. He returned a 10 rupee note and said, “Aap se thoda kam hi le raha hun — I am taking a bit less from you.” She could think of nothing to say, no smart retorts or even words of solace. She looked at him in the eye, smiled and said, thank you.

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