I’ve not had occasion to deal with women driving autos during my recent visit to Chennai, but then this post is about the incorrigible auto-drivers in our ‘Incredible India’. I did spot an auto-rickshaw with a painted message at the back, saying ‘This is a tourist-friendly auto’. A rare species, I believe. Tamilnadu tourism website lists 39 such auto-drivers, giving their names, addresses and cell numbers.
Experiences of a majority of those hiring autos have been such that a long-time Chennai resident has even gone to the extent of suggesting in a blog post that it is time governments of other countries issued a travel advisory to their nationals not to hire auto-rickshaw while in Chennai. A researcher in Madras University, Mr Jesuraja, is reported to have done a thesis on the behavioural pattern of the city auto-drivers. His study is based on interviews with 130 automen from T Nagar.
My recent experience in dealing with these guys proved educative. An auto-driver was the last person from whom I expected to get a lowdown on the state of recession, inflation, petrol prices and allied economics. I found them agressively pragmatic in negotiating fares. Did I say ‘negotiation’ ? It’s not the word; the Chennai auto-drivers have the last word, often the only word, when it comes to fare-fixing. They know of no such thing as a fare-meter. In terms of business ethics Chennai auto-drivers appear to be guided by the take-’em-for-a ride approach adopted with impunity by the likes of ‘Satyam’ Raju and Bernie Madoff.
Like the celebrity swindlers, autowalahs have no qualms about looting the gullible. But aren’t out-of-town visitors meant to be fleeced? Which, presumably, what this auto-driver on South Boag Road (near Sivaji Ganesan’s place) had on his mind when he asked for Rs.50 to take me to FabIndia on G N Chetti Road. When I asked if it wasn’t a bit much for a two-km ride the automan snapped, “what,then, would you pay? Five rupees?” So scornful was he that I felt silly having bothered him in the first place. I skipped the next two automen we passed by; and let my wife tackle the third one we came across. He wanted Rs.40. When we asked if he couldn’t bring it down, the automan gave us a kerbside talk on rising cost of living, falling value of the rupee, not to speak of high petrol prices. But haven’t they brought it down ? The auto-driver held that a reduction by a couple of rupees at the prevailing living costs made no difference to auto-drivers’ living standard. His punchline: “After all, I asked you for Rs. 40, not 40,000″. I couldn’t figure out what he meant by that.
Eventually, we ran into an automan willing to take us for Rs.30. It may be well above the official minimum fare for a two-km ride. But then who follows the metered rate structure? Auto thozhilalar union president is quoted in Deccan Chronicle as saying auto-drivers could not be expected to go by the government fixed rates, and still hope to improve their living standard.
Such attitude of blatant defience of authority smacks of what I would term the ’Cooum syndrome’. It is a situation wherein you leave an issue unadressed so long that it becomes utterly hopeless. Once a navigable river running through the city of Madras, Cooum has, over decades of neglect and inaction, degenerated into a stagnant sewage dump. Cooum is so far gone that the authorities can no longer address the issue of cleaning the river in a meaningfully manner. With apparent inablity of the local authorities to discipline auto-drivers, that travel advisory may well apply to all visitors, not just foreigners. As for Chennai residents, they appear accustomed to their incorrigible automen, as they are, to an unflowing Cooum.