The euphoria over an auto rickshaw with a ticking meter has died down in Chennai, and the days of haggling over rates are creeping back, say many commuters.
More and more drivers are refusing to work with a meter, they allege. Over 70 days ago, effective August 25, the Tamil Nadu government pegged the minimum autorickshaw fare at Rs 25 for the first 1.8 km traveled and Rs 12 for every additional km.
Night tariff, and waiting charges were fixed as well, giving no room –at least on paper—for any kind of bargaining that would amount to fleecing the customer. It was also announced that action would be taken on erring auto drivers.
A proven complaint meant that a driver had to pay Rs 500 fine, and after three such defaults, his license would be suspended for a month. Every system seemed to be in place for a smooth ride.
Initially, with many drivers complying, it seemed that it was a win-win situation for both the commuter and the auto driver.
Commuters found that they were spending 50 to 60 per cent less on auto fare, compared to the same time frame before August 25, and auto drivers found they did not have to wait idly for hours to find a customer.
The revised rate seemed set for a smooth run. The last fare revision happened six years ago.
There are 71,470 autorickshaws in the city and owners were given time till October 15 to recalibrate their meters, receive the fitness certificate and provide ownership proof/proof of residency.
That deadline has since been pushed to November 15, and nearly 30,000 autos have not calibrated the meter and obtained the necessary certification.
However, within two months, some auto drivers have gone back to their old ways of demanding indiscriminately, say commuters.
When S Madhusudhan got off the Lalbagh Express in Chennai recently, he could not find a single auto at the Central Station willing to go with the meter tariff.
“ It was one pm and since my parents were keeping back the lunch, I had no choice but to take what was on offer and ended up paying Rs 200 when I got off at Nandanam,” says Madhusudhan, a statistician.
R Atul, a college student was charged Rs 120 to from Alwarpet to Spencer’s on Anna Salai. “The auto had a meter, and he had the rate card, but the meter was malfunctioning. I was tired of arguing and let it ride, ” he says.
Not everyone is crying foul though. Prahalthan Karunakaran, an activist who first kicked off the online campaign o change.org
in June 2012 to fix the auto fares in Chennai and Tamil Nadu, and got 16,632 signatories to the petition, says getting the meters to run is ‘a work in progress’.
Recalling that one had to pass over dozens of autos before finding one with a working meter in the past, Karunakaran says that during Diwali he took three autos, and all three turned on the meter without a fuss.
“There are many good auto drivers, who see the merit in using the meter ” he says but concedes that not all autos have been recalibrated.
Is there a slackening of will, after the initial focus on implementing the new tariff regime? Experts say there are a few hurdles.
According to sources close to the state transport department, extending the deadline was necessitated since drivers did not take the calibration deadline seriously.
“There are 39 meter repair workshops in the city, and the transport department tried to introduce a token system so that a given number of autos would be calibrated on that day.
Unfortunately, drivers failed to fall in line, resulting in last minute rush. The department had no choice but to extend the deadline,” says the source.
Some commuters, such as R Vendhan are of the opinion that defaulting vehicles are largely those held in benami. Experts say that proof of ownership could be an issue for a number of defaulting vehicles, but not the entire lot.
S Balasubramanian, general secretary, Auto and Taxi Drivers Union says that proof of residence, as demanded by the transport department is a thorny issue for many autos. He says rationalizing all 71,470 autos with a Chennai permit would be a way out for all.
“A driver living in Meenambakkam would not come under Chennai jurisdiction but would fall under Thiruvallur district, even though his auto is plying in Chennai.
According to him at least 5000 drivers hail from neighboring districts such as Arakkonam, and many others live in one area and work in another.
“The government should issue a Chennai permit for all the 71,470 autos as mentioned in the GO. If that happens calibration would be completed soon, ” he feels.
On the issue of some drivers demanding more than the meter tariff, Balasubramanian says many among the 30,000 plus autos who have not calibrated the meter are not convinced of the revised tariff.
He says they are demanding fuel subsidy. “They are ready to serve the people, but since cost of living has been rising steadily. They want the government to give at least three liters of fuel tax free, as is being done for fishermen,” he says.
Clearly, the meter calibration drive is beset by a few stutters, although there are drivers like Selvam who says the meter works for him. He has found increased patronage, and his customers are happy they are not being taken for a ride.
Experts say that every commuter has to make the meter work by saying ‘no’ to an auto without a meter.
“The change to the meter regime is a work in progress,” says Prahalathan Karunakaran. “Let us give auto drivers some more time to change their mind sets and work out the math that they make more money when they turn on the meter.
At the same time, we can’t sit back and expect the government to do everything. Let us boycott an auto with a non functioning meter,” he adds.
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Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist