With the fresh COVID-19 cases dropping steadily everyday, the Tamil Nadu government has significantly eased pandemic-imposed lockdown restrictions. Yet, auto-rickshaw drivers in the state are not finding passengers because schools, colleges and many industries are yet to reopen.
Another reason for the drop in passengers is the recent announcement of free bus rides for women. This is one of the first schemes brought about by the recently formed Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) government. While the move is largely appreciated, the government did not take stock of the impact it had on auto drivers.
Women form a large part of auto-rickshaw passengers, but now, with free bus rides, a huge portion of them are preferring public transportation over auto-rickshaws.
Added to the hiked fuel price and lack of passengers during the pandemic, the free bus ride scheme for women has come as a final nail in the coffin. Many auto-rickshaw drivers are giving up the profession and trying to find other work.
Auto-rickshaw drivers’ unions, however, have a proposal to deal with the situation. They are demanding that instead of private players like Ola or Uber, who connect drivers with passengers, the government should take control over the process. This way the state could also provide compensation in case auto drivers are out of work for long periods.
NO FARE REVISION SINCE 2013
The last time auto-rickshaw metre rate was revised in Tamil Nadu was in 2013; the minimum fare was fixed at Rs 25 for the first 1.8 kms and Rs 12 per km thereafter. Even though petrol prices increased by more than Rs 15 per litre, from Rs 75-80 per litre in 2013 to beyond Rs 100 in 2021, the government has not revised the metre fare in eight years.
Tamil Nadu Auto-Rickshaw Workers Federation, an umbrella organisation with 45 unions, is demanding the rate to be increased to Rs 40 for the first 1.5 kms and Rs 20 per km subsequently.
The federation’s president Balasubramanian told Newsclick, “In 2016 the Madras High Court directed the state government to revise the meter fare, but the state remains aloof to the directive and till date has taken no action.”
He said, “The auto passenger fare has to change according to inflation, petrol price shifts, population, city limits etc, but the government has no such indicators to decide fares.”
The conglomeration of unions has proposed that GPS supported metres be provided for autos, so that with the change in petrol price, the fares can be adjusted.
‘WE DON’T WANT OLA, UBER’
A common complaint against Chennai auto-rickshaw drivers, compared to other metropolitan cities in the country, is that they do not charge passengers according to the metre fares. Auto drivers, to their defense, state that the metres are not on par with fuel expenses and fail to meet their daily needs.
Notably, Delhi and Mumbai have revised auto fares over the past couple of years.
While hiring an auto-rickshaw via Ola or Uber, the driver gets paid only the meter price fixed for the respective distance travelled. Rest of the money goes into the pockets of the private companies, which is said to be 30% of the pay. Hence, drivers complain that when working with these companies their pay is much less than directly negotiating with passengers.
These private-owned phone applications also increase prices according to demand, especially during peak hours, festival days and out of city rides. However, the drivers hardly get 10-20% of this amount.
Balasubramanian said, “Initially Ola and Uber gave good incentives. They even provided android phones to drivers. But now, they have taken over the entire sector and they are the ones setting the rules. That is why we are asking the government to take over the work of connecting passengers with drivers. Even if the state takes 2% of the pay, it would be a win-win situation for the state and auto drivers.”
He added, “If this is a truly people-friendly government, they would take us motor workers seriously. We form a huge part of the state’s population after agricultural workers.”
‘CRUSHED TO NOTHING’
Although Tamil Nadu government ordered the insurance companies to not take EMIs for six months for auto-rickshaws bought on loan during the pandemic, banks are allegedly not permitting this. CITU and other trade unions even demanded that this period be extended till December 2020.
However, auto drivers have been forced to pay installments and they are penalised by banks for not paying on time.
Protest in Tirunelveli on July 7 opposing fuel price hike. Image courtesy: CITU, Tamil Nadu
Over the past few months, there have been several rounds of protests against petrol price hike in the state. Auto-rickshaw drivers have participated in large numbers in these protests and expressed their plight during the pandemic.
“Without work for several months, we have already mortgaged all items from home and are in debt. Even though we have no income, we have to pay road tax, reissue driving licenses, pay for fitness-certificate, pay green tax and pay for insurance. On top of that, we have to pay EMI for autos. This is impossible,” said a driver speaking at a protest in south Chennai.
“Auto-rickshaw driving is a good profession, we own our own means of employment and are not bowing down to anyone. But now we are crushed to nothing. One driver has taken up selling groundnuts, another is trying farming,” said Balasubramanian.
As per the Road Transport Office (RTO) data, there are 2.60 lakh auto-rickshaws in Tamil Nadu. Many autos are driven by more than one driver and thereby, there are more auto drivers than the number of autos, and estimatedly 3.20 lakh drivers are working at present