‘Hyderabadi Autowallahs’ – A Law Unto Themselves

24

There is an interesting real life story of an expatriate regarding the ubiquitous mode of transport in Hyderabad – the auto rickshaws. According to the story, auto rickshaws are all over the place and zip you from one end of the city to the other. And, traffic here is crazy and if you are a first timer here, be ready to bite your teeth and hold your breath because you won’t be able to know when your driver is going to hit someone. It is one of the most frightening and exciting experiences you’ll ever have. For very little money indeed, you can have several near-death experiences, whilst watching all the hubbub, smells, sounds and colours of the street.

Ensure you do not bring too much money in your pocket because auto rickshaw drivers are bound to take you for a donkey’s ride and you will end up egg-faced in the whirlpool of trouble. For, after all you are a foreigner. Totally incredible!!!

How true is it? And it’s not just this foreigner who faced this music, but most of us must have faced it one time or the other and continue to face it day in and day out in our encounters with this puzzling phenomenon called auto rickshaws. As Mariyam, a telemarketing executive puts it, “They do it and do so with aplomb everyday with me and scores of others, who use this magical vehicle for a ride to their destinations. Once, it was 8 pm, I completed my office chores and asked an autowallah to take me to Punjagutta from my office, which was in Begumpet. The autowallah chap had the gall to demand 30 rupees when in fact it hardly cost Rs 15. I then replied back, ‘Standard, meter pe chalo bhai.’ After a lot of haggling and bargaining, the brazen auto chap came down on his demand and agreed with a clip of dialogue, ‘Meter pe dus rupaye badhke.’ I did not have the nerve to argue further and said OK.” Yes, Ma’am, you are right, these autowallahs do not buckle down and have come to be a law unto themselves whether on the road driving or harassing the hapless passengers.

Now for the photo shoot, what is this AUTO??? Relax; it’s a three-wheeled motorbike with a basic casing around it that accommodates in the normal sense, three people. If one is adventurous, one can squeeze in two small kids in between or if one dares to take the bull by its horn, juxtapose two hefty humans in between. Sounds a little bit comical or a bit too puzzling? Both of it, for we are here talking of Hyderabad’s most visible and ubiquitous mode of public transport, the famed AUTO. Add to this, the star of the show, the jack of all driving tricks, the autowallah, steering the auto with handlebars, rather than a steering wheel. What about the ride? It’s a switch between the audacious and hilarious, put together, you can say, its hair raising. Now your doubt must have got wiped out and you must an idea of a Hyderabadi auto, am I right??

Auto rickshaw drivers in Hyderabad are synonymous with trouble. When they are not charging exorbitant rates, they are arguing with you over the fare, running without meters, parking where they like or driving rashly. At times, things get out of hand and many a battle has been fought with fierce rage involving them. Mariyam recollects, “A friend of mine disclosed to me that in Chennai, an auto driver hit a female passenger with his slipper in full public view after a pitched battle. The whole incident was shocking.”

Over the years, certainly autowallahs have taken the battle with all and sundry to the next level and elevated themselves to a status that’s beyond the reach of the law enforcing authorities. Long time city resident, K. Siva Rama Prasad, who works as Sr. DGM with BHEL R&D agrees and says, “Auto travel must be the last resort to commute in the city of Hyderabad. In my long stay of 28 years in Hyderabad so far, there were occasions when I travelled by auto that can be termed something else. I have come to hate auto travel since it is highly jerky, dangerous and uncomfortable. The attitude of most auto drivers is simply atrocious and condemnable. There is hardly any driver who agrees to ply on meter. Even if one is fortunate enough to go by meter, it could be a tampered one.”

The story does not end there. Most of the auto drivers do not have permission to run their autos and what’s more, they do not have driving licenses, registration papers and above all proper meters. When asked about her impressions about autowallahs and their overall image over the years, Prabha Viswanathan, a software engineer, who is a regular auto-goer is not only appalled by their attitude, but also put off by their atrocious driving and utter lack of driving sense. However, she points out, “I agree, not all of them are bad. But 90% of them are like that, spoiling the name of the good 10%.”

With a pathetic public transport service, plethora of private vehicles, comical traffic jams, deplorable pedestrian road sense and above all, laughable traffic management and frequent whimsical public culture of our beloved netas who live in a world of their own, you can add the notorious autowallahs. What do you get? Simple, you get a perfect picture of a city where commuting to a place of one’s destination is nothing short of a nightmare. And you also get a sense that commuting is better off in the remote badlands of the Taliban, since none of the above mentioned pinpricks are on show there and what’s more, you dare not commute there alone and openly.

PROBLEMS, PROBLEMS, GALORE
Did you say problems? The very word autowallah conjures up problems and tons of them. From their atrocious parking style to scary and bizarre driving, brazen twisting of meters, arrogant behaviour and last but not the least, their uncouth civic sense.

METER FARE HAGGLING
The new digital meters are supposed to be tamper proof, showing exact fares and distance traveled. But the picture on the ground reveals it is not. And what’s more, some auto rickshaw drivers themselves say that they are not. For many people, the auto is a daily means of transport. But sadly even the introduction of the digital meter has come to be littered with drama of all kinds, enough to spin one into the world of high blood pressure.

For autowallahs, its fare, destination and distance that matter the most. Now that’s unfair. Why should one pay extra to travel inside the city? And what right does the auto driver have (being a private public-servant) to work by his own whims and fancies? Does he have the right to choose the area, customer and the fare, all by himself? And for what?

In the chaotic Hyderabad of today, one cannot dream of traveling from Sainikpuri to Madhapur or Dilsukhnagar to Sanathnagar on a normal fare by auto. Why is it so? Not only is the distance between the two destinations as difficult as traveling from Kabul to Peshawar, but also for the revered auto driver, the only places “inside” the city are the places where he gets his customer in a matter of seconds. He prefers it that way and for him, the rest of the areas are taboo and outside the city. Whenever you badger him on the same, you get the famous dialogue “Uder se khali aana padega.” So, what do you do? Simple, you need to not only shell out half the fare extra (or sometimes twice), but also forced to acknowledge that the fiery arguments between you and the auto driver on the fare becomes secondary, since you are compelled to hope that he at least agrees to come to your area. Prabha Viswnathan, answers, “This haggling over rates gets on your nerve. Of course, you get some good auto drivers who are helpful in not only playing by the rules, but also helping you find an address. In addition, they used to give me some useful information on shopping places during my initial days! Else, most are horrible. Either they charged me double the rate or refused to come to places in emergency or didn’t have any meters and charged as they wish!” Manas Garg who works as a software developer for a premier MNC, states, “I dread going anywhere if I have to take an auto. It is a horrible experience to haggle over the charges. It’s rare that one agrees to go by the meter. Usually they are like ‘meter will say 120, so I’ll charge you 180’.”

If you hire an auto at Secunderabad railway station, you have to think twice, especially if you are a first timer. Because, when these autowallahs sense that you are a first timer at the place or to the city, they gang up to take you for a donkey’s ride. This trend is also visible at major bus stations and of course major shopping centres. Asked what needs to be done to nip this menace in the bud, Manas Garg answers, “This problem is really a bugbear. The traffic police at times takes money from the auto drivers, and so if you approach the police saying that the auto driver is not ready to go by the meter, they end up taking the side of the autowallah, or retort back that they cannot do anything about it. To end this menace, the city traffic police must stop collaborating with the auto drivers and the situation would become much better.”

J David Foster, an American expatriate who works as urban advisor for Administrative Staff College of India finds the police to be far too lenient on all drivers and also too lax in enforcing traffic regulations. Manoj Agarwal, who works as a sales representative for 99acres.com recommends strict policing. He further states, “The few times I had to deal with them was when I had to take my family out and that was before I got my car. The tales that my mother tells me of them are un-amazingly similar. Impolite and tough bunch of guys, will be an understatement.”

Quoting outrageous fares in the night has become a great ball game for many auto drivers. Think of it, they quote an amazing fifty rupees for a two kms ride, instead of the prescribed twelve rupees. They decide where you want to go, and how much you’ll pay for it. Sudheer Abbaraju, a HR Manager with a private firm, has had several brushes on this aspect, “I have come across many autowallahs who charge ‘half rate’ from 10 pm itself. As per rules, half rate applies from 11.00 pm to 5 am in the morning. That’s disgusting! We should be stern while negotiating the fare. Sometimes if the destination might be far off and ‘chaala lopaliki’ (deep inside – as the autowallahs put it), then I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks. I don’t think much can be done to tackle this menace and all we got to do is negotiate the price. Bargaining, you see that’s typical Indian ishtyle!!!”

Dr. S Jeevananda Reddy, who works as Convenor, Forum for a Sustainable Environment, believes that the auto drivers have elevated the art of charging ridiculously in the night to new levels. He further states, “It is a fact with some auto drivers. It is very difficult to deal with such people, even for officials since the auto unions are very strong. If steps are taken, they go instantly on strikes or protests and create hell on the roads. Also, in this state the violators of law get support from the opposition political parties as a way of vote bank politics and money spinning activity.”

Hyderabadis are also facing lots of problems on short distance travel. The autowallahs are reluctant to come for distances of one or two kms. Where they have their way, they quote ridiculously exorbitant rates which will make you take a plunge into the Pacific Ocean. For instance, traveling from Abids to Himayatnagar which is not more than 3-3.5 kilometers and has a minimal charge of about 15-20 rupees, an auto driver charges nothing less than 50 rupees. Ditto for a journey from Greenlands to the shopping mall – Hyderabad Central, a distance of just 2 ½ kms. Asked what needs to be done to tame this problem, Dr. S Jeevananda Reddy replies, “Simple, just complain to the police. However, I know that the traffic police can do little. Earlier, at Begumpet airport, there used to be a system of pre-paid autos, that’s not allowed at Shamshabad airport, autowallahs literally used to hound passengers coming out and coerce them to come with them, asking for more money by cooking up a story – ‘I am waiting there for several hours’. If you refuse to pay the amount demanded, they used to abuse in filthy language until you reach your destination. Most did not like to waste their time filing complaints. Where some used to do the same, the autowallahs simply used to cook up stories to the police and escape. One famous story used to be – ‘Sir, I wanted him to pay extra for the luggage; he abused me, etc., etc!!!’ However, not all autowallahs used to do it, only some greedy ones.”

Manoj Agarwal has an interesting answer, “For the one’s who charge more than the meter, that is, the Government must activate a SMS short code allowing the commuters to SMS the license plate numbers to say ‘12345’. The police must also be accountable and take action; by SMSing back to the complainer with a message like ‘Found guilty – booked under Sec 123’, ‘Not booked for lack of evidence ‘, ‘ Not booked – untraceable’ etc.”

Auto drivers take advantage of the situation and demand extra fares that could go up from Rs. 20 to Rs. 100. It’s not just the short distances, but also wherever there is a dearth of RTC buses, on a weekend or a holiday. This is most predominant wherein people want to reach Necklace Road, NTR Garden, Prasad’s IMAX, Ameerpet, Banjara Hills or Jubilee Hills. Prasad Ajinkya recommends, “Take their auto numbers and complain to the police. This system is there in Mumbai. By law, across India, an auto rickshaw fellow has to take you places even for shorter distances. If an auto driver refuses to ply anywhere in Hyderabad, complain to the closest police station.” When quizzed about this, an auto driver Mannu replied, “We don’t get return rides from these places till late in the night. And people always grumble to pay two-way fare. When there is a choice of destinations, you would prefer the best, won’t you?” Another smart auto driver Sailu pinpoints, “I need to earn about Rs. 500/- per day to pay back the loan on my auto rickshaw. Due to lack of business, best part of the daytime on a holiday is spent idling around. You can see many autowallahs taking a nap under the trees during the day. It is but natural for us to recover the loss by demanding extra fare.”

ALSO READ:  Happy Easter Greetings To All Our Readers!

Prabha Viswanathan feels that the tales of autowallahs are all hogwash. “Yes, I have had awful experiences in this regard and if I am asked to put up a list, I can put up one which will charge nearly 20 people. None of them helped me in an emergency – mainly people don’t want to go to the city from suburbs like Miyapur and people from the city (like Nampally) don’t want to come to Miyapur. Such people should be handed over to the traffic police (provided the traffic police don’t take any bribe from them and leave them)” she says.

PARKING & DRIVING BLUES
It does not take even a minute for even a small kid to point out the bizarre parking style of autowallahs. Just a glance at any bus bay will give you a peep into the autocratic and brazen parking style of the revered autowallahs. They breeze in aristocratic style and park their auto with aplomb right in front of the bus bay, caring a damn that it’s meant for an incoming bus. Coolly lifting their legs and then crossing it, they make themselves comfortable while virtually demanding customers to try them out. They also create anarchy and contribute to the traffic disorder, squeezing between spaces available and driving slowly in the middle of the road during heavy traffic. Traffic rules mean nothing to them. They don’t signal while turning, causing accidents and drive on the roads with such majesty and dare devilry, that they think they are traffic star attractions.

K. Siva Rama Prasad is appalled at this and demands strict action be taken to haul up the autowallahs who indulge in this gimmickry. He responds, “They should be stripped of their driving license and fined heavily, to instill some sense into their empty heads. Coming to driving of autos, it’s a big menace which is largely responsible for many of the road accidents. Ironically, the victims are mostly the other vehicle drivers who meet the unfortunate fate because of the reckless and unpredictable driving of the autowallahs.”

N V V R Kumar believes that Hyderabadi autowallahs are the worst of the lot he has encountered across the country. He pinpoints, “The worst aspect of these autowallahs is their parking at bus bays. I suggest that their vehicle should be seized and the concerned driver be heavily fined and stripped of his license, if he repeatedly commits the crime. Also, the Government must provide more quality auto parking stands and ensure that the autowallahs do not park and loiter slowly on the roads. If autos are parked in and around bus bays and if the bus driver dashes against them, who suffers? Only draconian measures can solve problems, else the situation can as well be declared as incurable.”

Prabha Viswanathan avers, “They don’t have a thing called ‘COMMON SENSE’ in their head. Forget about ‘Parking Sense’, I have seen numerous accidents compounded by autowallahs parking on road sides and their irresponsible attitude!”

Manoj Agarwal is of the opinion that the autowallahs consider the roads as their undisputed domain and believe that they have the cherished right to park anywhere. Manas Garg concurs with him and replies, “They think of themselves as the king of the roads! They park where they want and overtake whenever they want. Rules? What the hell are they?”

For autowallahs, rules are meant to be tossed into outer space. The very word RULES does not exist in their dictionary and if asked the meaning of the same, they are bound to say it makes them look like fools. Sudhir Abhiraju puts their attitude in this regard in the same league as some motorcycle chaps who park their vehicles as and where they like and zip and zoom on the roads like some Formula One car racing drivers. He further says, “Same as any other vehicle – like bikes and cars’ style of parking. We Indians just don’t follow a pattern while parking and we also don’t have enough room for parking on the roads. It’s the same with every vehicle on the road, when it comes to parking!!”

David Foster believes that leniency of the traffic police has only further emboldened the drivers, “All auto drivers have a strong tendency to park in a way that needlessly blocks traffic. Very few of the traffic regulations are really enforced.” Dr. S. Jeevananda Reddy who has had many a unhappy experience on this score, answers, “They prefer to park haphazardly on the roads, particularly near traffic junctions. It’s an old trick and what’s more, to get passengers, they drive as slow as a tortoise on the roads. The major problem I feel is that the authorities have not provided proper auto stands. The Jubilee Hills Check Post is a classic example of how the auto rickshaws are parked in front of the dreaded traffic police people themselves. The commuters have to waltz pass through this traffic mess and top of it; traffic police chaps never even take action. Whenever such incidents are brought to the notice of traffic police top brass, they merely do something on that day and next day again things are back to square one. This is the case at all the bus stops. Another problem is that the Government has been unable to stop usage of adulterated fuels despite our agitation on this for the past one decade. Also, the Government submitted to the courts that they would amend the Motor Vehicle Act to punish such violators. Sadly, till date nothing in this direction was achieved nor implemented. Perhaps, big money is there!!!”

Truly a sad occurrence when across the world, global warming has become a major concern. Perhaps, through such practices, the pockets of our influential and powerful babus are being warmed with waddles of green bucks. Coming to the parking menace and by now the utterly deplorable behaviour of our revered autowallahs, we can just twist the problem and call it ‘barking’ and loudly confess that we are all barking up the wrong tree. Mindsets and attitudes are difficult to tame and it will take divine intervention to tune it onto the right track.

What about auto stands? Did you say AUTO STANDS???? Forget it, you can count them on your fingers and still have some fingers uncounted. There is a near-drought of auto stands in the city and where they exist, they are used by the revered autowallahs for anything but parking their autos. A walk-in to the legendary Secunderabad Railway station will give you an insight as to how the auto stands work. The auto stand at this place has two rows. While the constable regulates the drivers, the home guard jots down details of the passenger and the driver. When hundreds of passengers coming out of the station simultaneously rush to the auto stand, the home guards are unable to jot down the details quickly. As a result, the whole place tends to become a theatre of chaos, with queues of vehicles and passengers lengthening. Taking advantage of the chaotic situation, some brainy auto drivers directly approach the passengers and take them away, even as cops who are barely two or three in numbers look with awe and watch helplessly. “Why cannot the higher-ups post some more policemen to keep things in order?,” asks Srinivas Babu of Umanagar. Interestingly, the auto drivers herein refuse to use the fare metre and demand fixed amounts, notwithstanding the presence of policemen.

There also have been several thefts. One such passenger, Seema of Balkampet, while coming to the auto stand was mobbed by a gang of autowallahs and one smart autowallah flicked away two of her suitcases containing her cash and other valuables. The scene at this place is at its worse during the early hours due to the arrival of many trains. With very few policemen around, the drivers literally have a field day, making the hapless passengers dance to their demands.

When told about this aspect, a senior police officer said, “For thefts, a special crime party is posted at the station to keep an eye on suspects. We are enlisting the help of traffic police and the railway police in this regard. Also, we are ensuring that auto rickshaw drivers who refuse to carry passengers to a destination of his/her choice are being hauled up. But sadly, they get away, as most of the commuters do not lodge a complaint with us. Due to this, the police authorities are finding it tough to tackle the menace. We also have started issuing complaint post cards to passengers at not only Secunderabad Railway station, but also at most important bus stations and railway stations. The card which is self-addressed to the DCP Traffic can be used by commuters to report their problem to the traffic department free of cost. In addition, the commuters can lodge a complaint against auto drivers at the traffic control room.”

The traffic police authorities have also recognised that the auto drivers are largely responsible for traffic congestion in the city. To curb this menace, they have drawn up a plan to rein in erring auto drivers by cracking down on those who haphazardly park their autos on the roads. Steps are being planned to increase the number of auto stands in the city by nearly 100. In addition, auto drivers not having driving licenses and violating traffic rules are regularly being booked and recommendations are being sent to the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) to seize autos that are parked haphazardly on the roads.

Traffic police authorities have also been instructing the auto unions that autos must be parked at the auto stands only and auto drivers will have to necessarily belong to a particular auto stand only. In lieu of this, photographs of auto drivers are being collected and records maintained by someone nominated from the auto stand. The records will have details like the name of the auto driver, his vehicle number, residential address and also particulars relating to the real owner of the vehicle. By implementing such a system, the authorities believe any complaint made against any auto driver can be traced easily.

David Foster also recommends that Hyderabad be made a more pedestrian friendly city. He states, “There are few foot paths and virtually no zebra crossings that are safe to walk. The irony is that in most European cities, where 80% of the population has access to automobiles, they still have excellent foot paths and bike paths, while in Hyderabad where 80% of the population are dependent on walking, we still have no safe place for pedestrians.”

RUDE BEHAVIOUR
Commuters travelling in the ubiquitous auto rickshaws have nothing but thumbs-down to the rude behaviour of drivers. From their arrogant talking style to arguing, lazy driving, idle parking near bus stops, refusal to ply short distances, reckless and belligerent driving and contempt for road rules, the auto drivers fare very poorly in the eyes of the commuters. They are considered to be by and large, rude, bad mannered and undisciplined. Commuters of all hues strongly recommend that autowallahs need to be taught the techniques of driving and behaviour etiquette.

Dr. S Jeevananda Reddy who has had several brushes with some rude auto drivers, states that there are bad as well as some good auto drivers. Asked to reveal his experiences, he discloses, “When they used to behave rudely, I used to keep quiet, else they may attack you physically. Earlier, I travelled by autos from airport and railway stations to reach my house in the late hours and received their abuses on many occasions. These days, I rarely use autos and even if I use them, I pay some extra money before they grumble. But, surprisingly on one occasion a Muslim auto driver refused to take the extra money saying that please pay as per the meter. It was quite a shocking experience and that made me realize that even among auto drivers there are some good people.”

Sudheer Abbaraju believes that one needs to be firm with rude autowallahs and pinpoints, “When you feel the autowallah is wrong, you need to be very stern and commanding and I do just that, not hesitating to have a go at him. I once had an encounter with this auto guy who was demanding me to pay up half rate, when I got down at my destination, much before the mandatory 11.00 pm time. I got into a serious argument in the middle of the road for nearly 20-30 minutes. He tried to blow back by revealing that half rate starts at 10.00 pm, which isn’t true!! I even stopped another auto, which was passing by and asked the driver as to when does the half rate apply? He replied back 11.00 pm much to the dismay of the arrogant autowallah.”

Some commuters believe in adopting a middle-of-the-road approach and avoid getting tangled with rude autowallahs. Manas Garg states this helps him and reveals, “Suppose I ask an autowallah the rate and he answers back, ‘it is 300’, I don’t bargain and instead I tell him that I don’t want to talk to him. Other than that, you can’t do much. They usually gang up at the auto stands, and you don’t want to pick up a quarrel.”

ALSO READ:  'Gutsy Sailors' Take On The Gusts In 'Hussainsagar Lake' In Hyderabad

Prabha Viswanathan agrees and replies, “If the drivers are rude, I usually don’t talk too much with them. Also, I just don’t pay what they have asked for!! (Usually rude drivers ask too much). Once, from Lingampally railway station to HUDA Colony which is hardly three kms, one smart auto driver asked for Rs. 100. It was not night or early morning when they usually charge 1.5 or 2 times, but it was 8 am. What did I do? I just paid him Rs. 30 which is the usual rate and kept walking.”

Bravo, madam! That was a sensible thing you did!! Manoj Agarwal has a novel idea, “When the auto driver behaves rudely, simply SMS your complaint”. Thanks, Sir! Your suggestion is a brain teaser. Prasad Ajinkya recommends that it is wise to not get angry, just forget him and take another auto. Jai, Ho Gandhigiri!!!

Rudeness seems to be an inborn trait among many autowallahs, but where it is sanctioned by a top ranking brass among their fraternity openly, then it is simply deplorable. K Siva Rama Prasad was appalled to come across an instance when such a thing came through. He discloses, “It was shocking to read an interview in a newspaper recently, wherein an auto union leader spoke utter nonsense on the running of autos in the city. And to top it, he had the gall to project a rosy picture about the behaviour of autowallahs, which can make new entrants to the city get carried away very easily.” Yes Sir, not only will they get carried away, but also get swept away by the rosy picture they get when they set foot on Hyderabad soil. Police authorities are aware of this problem. A senior police officer revealed, “After taking action, there has been some improvement in the attitude of the auto drivers of late.”

There are some shining cases of good auto drivers who have helped people injured in accidents and taken them to hospitals and on occasions, returned back briefcases containing cash or other valuables left behind in their vehicles by commuters. Such instances are definitely heartening to hear. However, changing the mindset of the bad lot of auto-rickshaw drivers in a short span of time is a Herculean task, akin to demanding the transformation of the mindset of the radicals in the badlands of NWFP in an hour.

A seed takes several days to sprout and grow, isn’t it?

 

Auto rickshaws are all over the place and zip you from one end of the city to the other. The first part of this article last month, spoke about meter fare haggling, parking, driving blues and autowallahs’ rude behaviour. Read on to find out what this concluding part has to say about the autowallahs!

PASSENGER OVERLOADING
What’s the difference between shared autos and normal autos in Hyderabad? Simple, both are the same except for the space in them. But both carry 6-7 people at one go which is against the law. Do you know that shared autos, also called as 7-seaters, are officially authorized and permitted to carry seven passengers, whereas, normal autos are officially allowed to carry 3-4 passengers?

However, rules do not work in this case, for some normal autos driven by adventurous autowallahs carry 6-7 passengers, with two special ones sitting on either side of the smart driver! So many cases of school children being carried this way have been reported and action taken. Yet, the heroic autowallahs deem fit it is their divine birthright to carry more than the number stipulated. An intelligent Hyderabadi seeing this phenomenon suggested that such autowallahs can form the F1 team of Hyderabad. But my friend, the autowallahs do not really consider the F1 as really a challenge, because for them our so smooth smooching roads are more thrilling than the F1 tracks.

MINIMUM FARE
The minimum fare collected by Hyderabadi auto rickshaws is Rs 12 as on now, rated among the highest in the country. There are a few things that need to be gleaned and discussed threadbare. Should not the auto unions deem it fit to reduce the minimum rate and revise their tariff as and when there is a fall in petrol prices, the same way they demand a hike in the fare when there is a rise? When the demand for hike in auto fares is not conceded, they do not think twice to go on a strike and top of it, they do it with such quickness that would put the fastest runner in the world to shame. At the drop of hat, they launch tactics like fast-unto-death and office-picketing.

K Sivarama Prasad finds it repulsing. He pinpoints, “The autowallahs try to squeeze more from the hapless public despite being aware that approved minimum auto fare is among the highest in the country. Just calculate the auto consumption per kilometer plus little more for maintenance, you will find that the official charges are too much on the higher side. I don’t understand why the Government surrenders to the pressure tactics of the autowallahs for further hike and give into whatever they want. The public is also to be blamed since they can’t manage their daily chores for a few days without autos and start pressurizing the authorities to solve the problem whenever the autos go off the roads.” Prabha Viswanathan who has traveled by autos across the country says, “The rates are the highest in Hyderabad. Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi are far better when compared to Hyderabad.”

Manas Garg finds Rs 12 quite on the high side. He states, “I’ve been to Ahmedabad, where the minimum fare is Rs 7, and you don’t ask the autowallah there anything before you enter it. You sit in, tell where to go, and he takes you. Then when you reach your destination, he simply checks the meter and tells you how much to pay. Simple. And if it’s Rs 7, he asks you to pay Rs 7. Not like here where the autowallah demands threateningly to round it up to the next higher 10 or 50!”

Sudheer Abbaraju suggests that a brainstorming session be held on this topic since the fares keep fluctuating like a dog’s tail with no control. He further suggests, “Involve general public, autowallahs and other stakeholders. It has to be bearable for everyone. I don’t know about the auto fares in other states in India, but my personal feeling is it is kind of okay! Having said that, in some cities like Chennai, the autowallahs don’t even bother to use the meters! We are much better off!” Dr S Jeevananda Reddy agrees with him and answers, “The fares are reasonable with petrol/diesel prices being a little high. If all the autos are converted from oil mode to gas mode, then the fares could be brought down.”

With fuel prices coming down like a roller coaster downslide, it is fascinating to note that autowallahs are making hay while the sun is shining. Perhaps they are imitating the tactics of stock brokers who make hay when the stocks zoom upwards and create mayhem when the stocks plunk down.

SOME USEFUL STEPS
What must be done to tame the whims and fancies of autowallahs? What needs be done to ensure that they play by the rules and toe the lawful line? What steps should be implemented to make the autowallahs adhere to a proper sense of decorum? After all, the city and the country as a whole are playing host to several expatriates and it is incumbent upon all of us to present a decent and dignified image of India before them.

Some steps like a police helpline exclusively for reporting harassment by auto drivers, induction of digital meters and issue of more foolproof driving licenses have already been taken. However, their effectiveness needs to be strengthened more to ensure that they serve their worth. Some other worthwhile steps that the authorities could do well to consider and implement include conducting training camps for auto drivers to sensitize them to the feelings of passengers and realize the importance of presenting a decent image, making tiffs with passengers a cognizable offence with heavy fines and most importantly, making it compulsory for auto drivers to have a certain level of educational qualifications. In addition, the traffic authorities must clamp down harder on reckless driving and implement greater surveillance at almost all the traffic signals to ensure that no auto driver jumps signals, make license-less driving and drunken driving serious offences leading to seizure of the vehicle, imposition of a penalty and cancellation of driving license. The traffic authorities must also seriously think of having a provision to report over speeding in their website, with more than two complaints on the same vehicle number leading to interrogation of the erring drivers and if considered serious offence, have the driving license cancelled. Another aspect that the authorities could do well to implement, is to make illegal U-turns by auto drivers who have the tendency to do it at their whims and fancies, a serious offence.
To elevate the standard of the steps, few more steps can be considered and implemented:

COMMUTER CARD SYSTEM
A card system must be followed at central bus terminals and railway stations. A passenger can fill up the card with details of auto number or cab number and drop it in a post box, to be delivered to the traffic control room. Based on the complaint nature, strict action must be taken against the erring taxi/auto driver without any further witness requirement or the requirement of personal appearance at the judicial court. In fact this system is currently in vogue at Secunderabad railway station during night times. However, its implementation and overall effectiveness has been a bit tardy and needs to be plugged of loopholes to make it more beneficial.

NEWSPAPER COLUMN
A popular newspaper used to have a question and answer column, every Monday, wherein Traffic Commissioner used to answer readers’ queries. The same however, was discontinued for some unknown reason. It would be beneficial if such columns are restarted. Sudheer Abbaraju, J David Foster and Manoj Agarwal believe that having such a column would be immensely beneficial. Manoj Agarwal states, “Media coverage definitely helps. However, interaction will have to be related to specific cases. Generic on and off coverages might not help. The citizens should be free to raise specific issues, and the officials compelled to give specific answers.”

Prabha Viswanathan while agreeing that it would be beneficial, but only to some extent, asks “How many officers generally read such newspaper columns? One-on-One interaction with officials is a much better option, since our complaints would be listened to and immediate answers could be had. However, will authorities concerned take strict action permanently? I don’t think so, for it will be taken after a month or so, things will be back to square one or even worse!” Manas Garg also is skeptical and points out, “I am not sure on this, for they are not multinationals who worry about their image in public.” Dr S Jeevananda Reddy is also not much enamored by this solution. He states, “Under the present democratic set-up, I don’t think this will solve the problem. Give an example, where the Government has gone by complaints in such columns. Like for instance, the case of removal of footpath occupiers who used it to practice their occupations. The same was vehemently opposed by our beloved netas, that is, galli leaders, who trumpeted it as dwellers livelihood and are doing the same for years. This is nothing but vote bank politics of modern politicians. Only bringing about a strong change among auto unions & officials concerned can solve the problems.”

AUTO DRIVERS’ EDUCATION?
Education broadens a human being’s mental horizon and brings about an awareness of things that ordinary illiterates will not have an idea about. Will having auto drivers of a certain education level help? Will it bring about a change in their mindset and change their attitudes towards passengers and fellow vehicle drivers on the roads? Will it raise the image and profile of public transport drivers in the eyes of the general public and more so, among expatriates? The public transport drivers in Western countries need to have a certain educational background to get driving license and the go ahead to drive on the roads. Will such a condition work in Hyderabad and India?

Prasad Ajinkya and Prabha Viswanathan think so. Prabha avers, “It’s very important – They need a driving class and education on traffic rules. More than that, they need to understand the value of a human life which they often play with.” Making auto drivers have a certain level of education may not work since there have been plenty of cases where educated people themselves have flouted rules with impunity. N V V R Kumar concurs and points out, “I have seen many educated types, mainly software engineers on motorcycles driving with impunity on the roads caring a damn. Often when traffic jams occur, they just lift their vehicles on to footpaths and zoom away with great speed ignoring the basic fundamentals of driving courtesy.”

Dr S Jeevananda Reddy affirms with this viewpoint and believes that it would not be of much use. He pinpoints, “On the other hand, majority of the uneducated are in fact polite and much better. Educated group in almost all spheres of life are the major violators of law. These days, you can witness people crossing the road or driving clinging mobiles to their ear, hardly bothering about its damaging consequences. Why, this is happening despite the Government banning cell phone-driving? I have seen countless scenes of two-wheeler as well as four-wheeler drivers of all kinds driving with cell phones and crash-landing onto road dividers causing accidents. Likewise, path for free left turn at signal points are blocked by all types of vehicles proceeding straight, etc. All these are happening despite majority of such offenders being of educated category.” “I don’t think it would be of use. Tell me, how many of us have had a formal course in driving? Getting a license is just about shelling the right bucks at the neighborhood driving school, and collecting your license. Everyone is already aware of the rules. What needs to be done is to enforce the rules” avers Manas Garg. Sudheer Abbaraju thinks educating them on traffic rules and behaviour etiquette is a better option. He says, “I don’t see as to how having a certain education level would work out. But teaching autowallahs traffic rules must be made compulsory. The traffic police must ensure that training on traffic rules and other things is mandatory and only after they pass through those tests, should they be given a driving license and the go ahead to drive an auto. In addition, they can be given a compulsory ID card.”

ALSO READ:  Lemon Fetches Rs 7,600 At Auction In Tamil Nadu’s Temple During Maha Shivaratri

Having a certain educational qualification tag affixed to your name is a passport to better career prospects and eventual prosperous life. However, it must be known that there have been many cases wherein educated people have themselves fallen foul of law and landed themselves in a soup. It is the person’s character that matters much more and if such a person is of good character and conducts himself creditably, then that’s good enough. Likewise, auto drivers need to be of good character and committed to rules and etiquette.

Currently, it is well-known as to how the majority of the auto drivers as well as most other vehicle drivers get their driving licenses – through bribing. It’s a common sight to see touts hovering around the RTA campus and helping budding license applicants in getting licenses and charging handsome amounts for the same. Prasad Ajinkya picks this point and attributes the easy pick of driving licenses to often unworthy drivers contributing to traffic chaos, thanks to their poor driving culture. He states, “Better enforcement of laws is a necessity. The city police are wanting on this score and I am sorry about the same.” Prabha Viswnathan agrees and answers, “License test must be made compulsory for all drivers. But again, in our country. anything is possible. I know of people who drive without a license and people who have not visited the RTO office at all, but have a license.”

Dr S Jeevananda Reddy also concurs on the same wavelength and says, “Auto drivers in general know the rules, though they get licenses through bribing the officials. Even if you know everything, you have to pay to get your driving licenses and about the officials, they are worse than the auto drivers themselves. If a change is brought in the attitude of auto union leaders, RTA officials & traffic police, things will automatically improve.” Manoj Agarwal suggests tackling the problem at the issue of license level itself.
However, of late, this problem has come down quite a lot with the authorities making it more difficult for getting a driving license through computerised tests. According to new provisions of Motor Vehicles Act, it is mandatory for those seeking a license to get a minimum of 16 questions correct out of the 20 on road safety and driving habits. This new rule has unnerved many an auto driver who can answer not more than eight questions correctly. An auto driver applicant Pandu who flopped in six attempts, states, “I have taken the test six times, but flopped. Answering 16 correct questions is tough since one can barely answer six or eight correct ones.”

AUTO UNIONS
The very word Auto Union makes not only the authorities cringe with a mix of both annoyance and fear, but also makes the ordinary city folks tremble with anger and a sense of contempt. Known to be packed with people who have nothing better to do than announcing indefinite strikes at the drop of a hat. For them, it has become a platform for announcing themselves to all that they are the innocent victims of manipulation by inimical forces. Pray who are they?

Emboldened by long years of undisputed dominance of the union hierarchy, their attitude over the years has become synonymous with corruption and arrogance. They have made themselves comfortable by making pots of money and enriching themselves at the cost of poor auto drivers, most of whom resent their ways.

When asked as to what the unions need to do to change their image in their eyes, Dr S Jeevananda Reddy answers, “All unions including Auto Unions should change their mental makeup by non-affiliating to any political parties. As long as unions are affiliated to political parties, good or bad they always will have to toe political line and support violators of law. During the last few months, the state of AP has witnessed strikes by several unions. With elections nearing, they know they can easily blackmail the ruling party to succumb to their demands. As long as trade unions are run under political banners, there is no way that violators of law & order can be reformed.” Sudheer Abbaraju agrees and does not think the unions can make much of a difference. He further avers, “Every other Union in India is politicised and one cannot expect anything better from them.” Manas Garg concurs on this and says, “It doesn’t matter. They will earn lesser if they become polite and start charging reasonable money. I always prefer driving down to a place 20 km away only because somewhere inside, I don’t want to haggle with the autowallahs. There is always this feeling of having paid too much.”

Unions must remake their constitution and work towards improving the image of the auto drivers like holding regular classes on driving culture, traffic rules and behaviour etiquette. N V V R Kumar avers, “Auto unions for their own betterment must concentrate on bringing about a change among auto drivers. If they can do this, there is bound to be an immediate sea change in their reputation in the eyes of the general public.” “Auto Unions must conduct regular behavioral skills classes for their drivers. They can have some meditation and yoga classes also, like what is being done for APSRTC drivers,” avers Prabha Viswanathan. Manoj Agarwal feels unions must be abolished totally. He asks, “What use are they? They can neither rule over auto drivers nor can they cast their viewpoints on commuters. They serve no purpose other than nuisance value.”

Auto unions can be of use only if they shed their old style of functioning which is nothing short of anarchy. They must retune their work approach in line with modern trends and must understand that their autocratic style of functioning will not cut ice anymore. Today’s commuters are much smarter and a lot more aware about the ball game of haggling and fleecing. Unions would do well to channelise their energy towards making their brethren more aware of traffic rules, driving etiquette and passenger behaviour, instead of calling for indefinite strikes at the slightest pretexts. With growing number of expatriates in the city and daily influx of both national as well as international businessmen and professionals into the city, they need to project a better image of themselves and stand up to be counted as someone who are respected and trusted upon.

MOVE TO REPLACE AUTOS WITH TAXIS
During the infamous auto drivers digital meter strike a year back, the Government of Andhra Pradesh was contemplating to replace auto rickshaws with taxis in Hyderabad in four years time. The idea behind it was to ease traffic congestion that has become the order of the day in the twin cities on major arteries, with three-wheelers identified as major culprits. It remains to be seen whether such a step becomes a reality and whether the three-wheeled planes that zip, nip and tuck around Hyderabad will become history.

It is said that the government is stipulated to have given the green signal to the Transport officials to go ahead with the proposal for the change sometimes back. The proposal was to formulate a scheme to facilitate low-interest loans to auto-rickshaw drivers in coordination with the State Level Bankers Committee. Under this scheme, auto-rickshaw drivers coming forward to replace their vehicles with cars would be provided bank loans for up to a maximum of Rs 4 lakh at three per cent interest. This amount would facilitate them to purchase four-wheelers like Tata Indica or a Maruti van. In arriving at this decision, the Government is said to have taken a leaf out of Mumbai’s book where autos have been replaced by taxis.

Currently, over 1.10 lakh autos are said to be plying on the roads of the twin cities and the adjoining municipalities that have been merged into the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation. The pressure on public transport is said to have gone up so much that there remains an urgent need for over 2,500 buses in addition to the existing fleet of 2,000. But the point is whether replacement of 1 lakh autos leads to something much better? Will it not create more chaos? What do the Hyderabadis think of this move?

Prasad Ajinkya feels, “Well, it’s a good start. However, that simply means you need to pay more. But at least you won’t have to haggle over the board double fares.” Manas Garg is gung-ho about this move and answers, “I agree, however, autos are cheaper than taxis by about two times. Maybe once we get used to paying for taxis, we’ll be okay with it. However, there is no correct conclusion that taxiwallahs will be better than autowallahs. After all, they are the same people, aren’t they?” Ditto with Sudhir Abhiraju, “It is a good thing and if at all that happens, I’d miss the fun of our beloved autowallahs! Also, I still feel taxis should be made affordable. Another thing that rankles me is we certainly can’t hire a taxi for short distances. The guys in the government should think about such things.”

Call centre employee Sreesha feels it’s worthwhile to have taxis and states, “I live in Habsiguda and my office is in Madhapur. Imagine if I had to commute the distance in an auto rickshaw? Even in a cab it is a backbreaking ride. Taxis would be a welcome thing for city commuters.”

Prabha Viswanathan does not think they will bring about a change. She says, “Autos are needed. Not all people will be able to afford taxis. And what is the guarantee that taxis will not repeat the same behavior? For anything rules and regulations are needed. We can have autos provided they have strict inspection for meters and autowallahs behavior!” Dr S Jeevananda Reddy is also not much enthusiastic about this step. He says, “Autos are an important mode of transport to low and middle-income people within the twin cities. The only major problem is that autos cause several problems, such as traffic jams, air pollution, etc. Taxis will be beneficial on certain roads leading to Shamshabad Airport, which is far away from the city and on the outer ring road, both of which are suitable to fast moving vehicles like taxis.“

The autowallahs are vehemently opposing this move of the Government. B Venkatesham, secretary of the automen’s union asks, “How can the automen shell out Rs. 8000 per month if they buy a taxi? Autos are a cheap mode of transport; once cabs are introduced they will go out of the reach of the middle-class.” He also pointed out, “If such a case happens and is implemented, we would go in for a long and volatile agitation. How do you cover the distance between Tarnaka and Hitec City or from the Shamshabad Airport to Secunderabad? Already call taxies are plying on the road. They can have prepaid taxis at the airport. But there is no question of giving in to their plan of phasing out the autos,” he says. “In real scenario, we make about Rs. 150 per day and where we have the odd lucky day, our earnings can go up to Rs. 500 also. But on the downslide, after spending on fuel, rent and repairs the money we take home is not worth the struggle” says auto driver Venkat Reddy.

Some experts are of the view that with several luxury sedans on the roads available for ferrying people around, it would not be feasible to add more vehicles on the roads. The distance gauntlet is trashed by Venkatesham of the automen’s union. “For airports and other long haul destinations they can have call taxis. But within the city, the autos are fine enough,” he says.

With proper planning and sound traffic management allied with quality infrastructure, both taxis and autos can co-exist and meet the burgeoning demands of the public. There also is a need for both auto and taxi cab drivers to co-exist amicably as J David Foster puts it, “I see no reason why Hyderabad could not continue to have both four-wheel taxis and three-wheel autos.” If such a situation comes about, then it’s not too far-fetched to visualize a situation wherein the public will have more public transport options and hassle-free to and fro commutes.

FINAL POINT
So much for the autowallahs. Loathed and lampooned by all and sundry, the autowallahs find themselves in a corner. However, not all of them are notorious. There are many amongst them who are genuinely good and render such impeccable service that it would put a well-respected CEO to shame. It’s only the remaining bad autowallahs who have discredited their profession, made the term AUTOWALLAHS, a much reviled one and discredit the public image of the unique yellow colored Tuk-Tuk. Auto drivers tend to blame their poor public image on a few black sheep, but then some black sheep make the whole lot look like a clan of unruly guys.

Change is the need of the hour, now. Autowallahs should look at their own mindset, attitude and behaviour, all of which must now change and metamorphose in the eyes of the general public, else not only will their image suffer, but also the image of the country gets trashed. #KhabarLive