Ahmedabad's dead-end street

The city's multiple hikes in CNG prices have hurt not only regular commuters but also the auto-rickshaw trade itself.

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Rickshaw commuters as well rickshaw drivers’ woes seem to be multiplying by the day. Both sides have been waging the battle of the bulge (read inflation) for quite some time now, albeit very unsuccessfully!

Neither party is winning — not the auto rickshaw owners who blame the rising fares on CNG price rise, nor the hard-pressed commuters who think the auto drivers are leeching on a golden opportunity. As a result, it is one huge unhappy market plying the city streets on three wheels.

Around 50% hike in Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) prices in the last one-and-a-half years have burnt a big hole in the pockets of thousands of commuters who are forced to use auto-rickshaws every day in the city. Not that it has spared the autowalas. High  CNG prices and maintenance charges coupled with commuters switching to public transport and shared auto, have dented their earnings massively.

Gas price hike
CNG prices have been hiked 30 times in last one-and-a-half years. As a result, CNG now costs Rs53 per kilogram  when, in February 2011, their price stood at Rs35.24 per kilogram. In the last five-and-a-half years, CNG prices have risen by 58%. In 2005, CNG cost Rs22.50 per kg. Although fuel prices depend on the international market, higher value added tax (VAT) levied by the state government is making CNG costlier and unaffordable for auto-drivers.

Auto-drivers have been successful in getting their fares hiked thrice in the past one-and-a-half years. However, that impacted harshly on the commuters who were already oppressed by inflation. As a result minimum fares that used to be Rs9 and running meter Rs6 per kilometer in February 2011 rose to Rs11 as minimum fare and Rs8 per kilometer as running meter in May 2012. This means that commuters who used to pay Rs33 for traveling five kilometers, now had to shell out Rs10 more at Rs43 to commute over the same distance.

However, the auto drivers who aren’t immune to the commuters’ plight, plead helplessness. “We are not in favour of auto fare hike as it ultimately increases the burden on commuters. We want the state government to provide CNG at cheaper rates by reducing VAT,” said Harihar Mishra, president of Ahmedabad Auto Rickshaw Chalak Sangharsh Samiti.

But auto rickshaw drivers’ unions threaten to go on strike with every rise in CNG prices and see fare hike as the last resort. On the other hand, the state government is not ready to reduce VAT on CNG to make auto rickshaw driving viable despite the fact that it gives direct employment to around one lakh people in the city. The drivers believe that if the state government provides them gas at cheaper rates, commuters will not have to bear a heavier burdens.

Viable options
Auto drivers complain that fare hikes also hamper their business adversely. They have to face stiff competition from the Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) and shared auto. With commencement of BRTS in the city, many a commuters have switched to public transportation, thereby affecting auto rickshaw business. Many a traveller residing in the western part of the city has started preferring to board or de-board trains at Maninagar, instead of going all the way to Kalupur station. They take BRTS from Maninagar to reach their destination, thereby saving both money and time. Similarly, hikes in auto rickshaw fare have forced people to share an auto which becomes cheaper though at the cost of comfort.

Auto drivers are also facing serious challenges in terms of maintenance of their vehicles. After CNG was made compulsory as fuel, drivers’ maintenance costs increased by around five times. They now have to spend around Rs50 to Rs70 every day for maintaining their rickshaw as oil has also become costlier and genuine spare parts too are not available. Owing to all these factors, the drivers can now hardly earn Rs200 to Rs250 per day after deducting all expenses. They cannot earn enough to ward off inflationary pressure. Despite daily earnings going up because of fare hike, they are hardly able to increase their net profit, lamented Harihar Mishra, president of Ahmedabad Auto Rickshaw Chalak Sangharsh Samiti.

Dis-united we lose
Incidentally, hundreds of auto rickshaw drivers have left the rickshaw business and are seen shifting to other occupations such as professional drivers with fixed income in terms of salary. Moreover, around 30% of the auto rickshaws that were purchased through private finance have been surrendered to the finance companies as the drivers fail to pay equated monthly installments (EMI). “One has to pay just Rs18,000 as down payment for buying an auto rickshaw and can obtain finance for the rest. So many people obtained finance to run their business for three to four months. However, they have now started surrendering their rickshaws to the financiers,” an employee of a private finance company said, adding that many auto drivers have also defaulted willfully.

Despite rickshaw drivers showing solidarity in time of crisis, they are not well organised as a union. There are 80,000 auto rickshaws in the city giving employment to more than one lakh people. However, only around 2,000 auto rickshaw drivers are members of registered auto rickshaw drivers unions. There are 14 different auto rickshaw unions in the city, but only three are registered. Ahmedabad Auto Rickshaw Chalak Sangharsh Samiti with around 1,400 members is the largest registered union, followed by Ahmedabad Auto Rickshaw Drivers Union with around 400 members and Ahmedabad Airport Auto Rickshaw Drivers Union with 80 members.
As a result many differences of opinion surface at the time of taking a call about negotiating with the state government on fare hike or going on strike to get their
demands fulfilled. It also takes political colour at times harming the interest of the individual drivers.

Yankee meter
On the other hand, commuters end up paying more as the auto drivers use only yankee meters which can be tampered with easily. As per the rule, auto drivers are required to use automated flag meter. In the flag meter, waiting charges are fixed and is calculated in the fare only, while the manually operated yankee meter lets the driver charge waiting fees at his whim and fancy.

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