Mumbai, the financial capital of India, is known as the land of corporate tycoons. At the same time, however, lakhs and lakhs of labourers, those from the middle class and lower middle classes call it home. Their toil makes sure the city does not lose its luster. Now, with a pandemic scare in the air, the situation on the ground is difficult for them, particularly those who carry the city around for both critical and mundane tasks.
There are close to two lakh auto-rickshaws in Mumbai alone, which keep about 2.5 lakh auto drivers busy in shifts. Some autos runs in two shifts. All of the 2.5 lakh drivers are not owners — a few thousand drivers take an auto on a daily commission basis from its owners. So, an estimated 2.5 to 2.75 lakhs people are directly dependent on the auto-rickshaw. Now, they are in serious financial jeopardy with business lazing to a halt.
Andheri Seepz is one of Mumbai's busiest business areas. It is home to many a corporate office and some manufacturing as well. Suresh Kumar Singh picks up customers in the Seepz area every day. Employees in this office area generally take to auto to nearby stations and Suresh earns between Rs 800 to Rs 1,000 daily by ferrying them. However, this week, the amount he earned was between Rs 500 and Rs 700.
“Some of the offices have given the option of work from home to their employees, that is affecting my business; it is down by close to 25%. If this gets worse, my hisaab will collapse,” he said Suresh. As in many cases, Suresh does not own the auto he uses to make a living, renting it on a daily basis. He pays 300 rupees to its owner per day. Aside from the rent of Rs 300, daily costs of CNG come to Rs 350 for CNG. So, everyday, out of his business of Rs 1000, he needs to payback Rs 650 and is left with just Rs 350. “If business comes down by another 25% then we won't be able to survive. Because we will have no use to take out the auto,” he said. When asked what he will do in that case, he said, “I will have to go back to my home in Ballia (in Uttar Pradesh).”
Auto driver's union and action committee chief Shashank Rao said the union is keeping a close eye on the situation. “This is an initial step, the Government has issued precautionary measures and has appealed to people to not come out of their homes. So, there are lesser people on the road. Business is down by 25%. If it gets worse, we will surely take a stand and make some concrete demands to the government, like the restructuring of our loans,” he added.
As per Rao, almost 75% of the autos on Mumbai’s roads have been bought on loan. So, when there is no business to be done, these auto owners will have a tough time repaying loans or clearing their EMIs on time. In such cases, loan restructuring would be the only way the Maharashtra Government could be of help.
Vitthal Mhatre from Dombivali East owns his own auto. However, with a loan almost Rs 1.70 lakhs in his name and with business down for over a week, Mhatre is tense. "Loan EMI is Rs 5500 per month. What is now becoming clearer is that if this situation persists, I will not even be able to make the EMI amount for this month,” he said.
Despite an economic slowdown over the last two years, the auto-rickshaw business survived due to its necessity. However, the coronavirus pandemic was an unforeseen situation that could spell troubled times for this seemingly robust industry.
*Update: Mumbai dabbawalas (part of the famous lunch delivery system in the city), too, have suspended their services in the wake of the rising number of coronavirus patients in the state. They will not deliver lunchboxes to their customers until March 31. According to PTI, Subhash Talekar, spokesperson of the Mumbai Dabbawala Association, said that the service will remain suspended from Friday as a precautionary measure.