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.
Filed under: auto-drivers, Blogger, Chennai, Gender, Media, Tourism | 3 Comments »