How many are too many ?

accidentSeven dead,  two rescued when  a three-wheeler carrying them plunged into  Tungabhadra  canal near Bellary.  An obvious question that springs to mind is,  how come there were so many travelling in that autorickshaw ?  We don’t get an answer in this 12-para news report.  In fact,  the question remained unasked by the reporter, even in a subsequent report.

Notably,  the media report refers to a gallant rescue of the two women struggling in water.  A passer-by promptly removed his dhoti and held it out as the lifeline that saved the two women from drowning . Rescue workers  later recovered five bodies,  four of which from inside the submerged autorickshaw.  It was so over-crowded that,  perhaps,  they couldn’t get out ,  and tragically went down with the sinking vehicle.   Maybe overcrowding was a factor that caused  the accident.  Maybe the driver lost control of the vehicle  that plunged into the canal. Passengers,  all women,  were farm workers.  The driver was among the dead.

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Domestic violence

seminarAt a Rotary Club seminar in Bangalore speakers called for empowerment of society to prevent domestic violence.  Police woman Kiren Bedi,  citing a UN report said India ranked third in the world – behind only Poland and Japan – when it came to incidence of domestic violence. 

trichy-trip-0151I wonder what the seminar speakers would have done,  had they been a witness to the scene in this picture.  Domestic violence here, involving an old man and a couple, is being played out in a roadside slum close to a rail crossing at Srirangam, Tiruchi.  The reality here cannot be  neatly summed up  in a seminar paper.  Nor do the recommendations  made  at such gatherings seem actionable on ground. 

There was  a sizeable traffic hold-up at the level crossing, waiting for the train to pass through. We watched the  old man, no less aggressive in his intentions,  being smacked by a couple at their door-step. The elevated road was at a height from where we couldn’t intervene physically.  Shouts and threats to call the police didn’t deter the young man bashing the old man.

 A couple of auto-drivers in the crowd were heard saying it was pointless  calling  the police , who, they said,  invariably arrived after the event , and that too , ‘to milk money from both parties’. So much for the public image of the police. Besides, incidents of domestic violence  are said to be  so commonlace that  society’s response is usually to let the feuding parties have it out among themselves till  the cops come to take them away.
trichy-trip-014Anyway, the feuding slum-dwellers were still at it as a freight train passed by the crossing ; and we move on as the rail barriers were lifted.

‘Incredible India’, incorrigible automen

automen 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.