On Delhi’s roads, a new sight meets the eye: colourful fonts painted across bright yellow display boards stick out from above the autos with the words ‘off-duty’ and ‘on-duty’.
These display boards were put up in compliance with a set of rules issued in August by the Transport Department to reduce the number of passenger complaints against auto drivers. In case of ‘off duty’ boards, the destination that the driver is headed to is also mentioned, so that only passengers headed in that direction can hail them.
While auto drivers grapple with the new rule, the Delhi government’s decision to unveil a new taxi scheme, has put them in a quandary. Besides stiff competition from cab applications like Uber and Ola, the new ‘City Taxi Scheme’ will operate on rates similar to that of the autos. “Small size taxi between 600 cc to 749 cc will have minimum flag-down rate of Rs 25 for first two km, which is same in the auto rickshaws. After two km, passengers will have to pay 10 per km,” announced Delhi Transport Minister Gopal Rai while launching the scheme on 17 August this year.
“We will not let them snatch away our livelihood without a fight,” says Rajendra Soni, General Secretary of the Delhi Autorickshaw Sangh. “This is least expected from a government which came to power due to the overwhelming support provided by auto drivers.” Protesting the government’s decision, they went on strike on 2 September. This move bought the capital to a standstill with commuters stranded across the city. According to Soni, over 90,000 autos were expected to participate in the strike. “If we are called for negotiations and given a strong assurance, then we will call off the strike,” he informed Tehelka ahead of the strike.
Despite the projected show of strength, trade unions engender little or no solidarity among auto drivers. “We are not informed about strikes: only those who have read about it join it,” says Rohit, an auto driver “Most stay back at home for fear of violence (being attacked by fellow drivers),” explains Rakesh Aggarwal, secretary of Nyay Bhoomi, an NGO which has been working with auto drivers in Delhi. This was evident in the 2 September strike where attacks on plying autos were reported. “In case our autos are damaged, even the police does not help us, so we prefer to go along with the strike,” says Avinash, an auto driver. “In reality, leaders of trade unions themselves do not have a clear understanding about the issues affecting the auto drivers. Similarly, drivers themselves do not understand the issues these leaders talk about, they remain completely out of the picture,” says Aggarwal.
As for the sign boards, they are a sore point with auto drivers. “We had received a lot of complaints against auto drivers refusing to accept passengers and hence thought of these boards as a solution,” explains Magan Singh, Motor Licensing Officer (MLO), Delhi Transport Department. The order for display boards was, however, introduced arbitrarily without a mandatory 40-day notice period, says Aggarwal. When contacted for clarification, Ramanathan, MLO, refused to speak to Tehelka.
“These are the many ways of making money,” rues Mohammad, an auto driver. “But it is helpful as now passengers cannot complain if we refuse to drop them while we are headed home.” This rule, however, is not a novel one. In September 2014, tired of the challans being issued by traffic policemen ranging from Rs 1,000-10,000 (for refusing to take passengers during off-duty hours), some autos started the initiative of displaying these boards.
The current decision, however, is being followed by the drivers for fear of being denied ‘fitness certificates’ (which are to be renewed annualy in case of an old vehicle and every two years in case of a new vehicle) if their auto is to ply on the roads. A similar situation was seen in 2014, when autos were denied fitness certificates for not installing GPS meters. There is currently, no uniformity in the rules as drivers themselves are clueless about the requirements. “We came to know about the rule only when we went to get our fitness certificates renewed,” says Rohit. While some autos merely carry boards with ‘off-duty’ painted on them, others also mention the destination they are headed for. Illuminated signboards, (as demanded by government) however, are yet to be seen.
The churn in Delhi’s public transport — private buses too are being brought back on the crowded roads — continues.