They say there is no sense as evocative as the sense of smell, maybe that’s why I still remember the time I took my first whiff of Chennai. It was midnight in early June and I was about to step out of the deodorized sterility of the city’s excuse-for-an-airport. I was readying myself for a blast of hot air from the bowels of an equatorial hell with an attached steam chamber. Thankfully, that blast never came, or I wouldn’t have been recounting this as fondly. What greeted me was the aroma of the wet earth, the patter of rainfall on the aluminium roof of the terminal; a cool breeze ruffled my unruly curls and I remember thinking to myself as I stepped onto the concrete: hell, this ain’t half as bad as people make it out to be.
I rushed through the light drizzle, my luggage trailing me, and got into a pre-paid taxi driven by a toothy young chap in khaki trousers and a white checked shirt. Little did I know that he would be the first and the only cabbie I’d meet in Chennai who would catch on even as I barely finished saying ‘Asian College of Journalism, Taramani’. Ah, well there’s always beginner’s luck to thank. “Asian-aa?”, he said, and I nodded a proud nod. He even helped me load my luggage into the cab without being asked to. Usually I’m quite reticent, but that fine night, I was urged by a subconscious impulse to talk as if wanting to curry (no pun intended) a favourable first impression on the city; I struck up a conversation with the driver, he who was the sole animate mediator between a faceless city and myself. I found myself looking for clues to the secret center of the city from his unsuspecting mannerisms, this person who seemed to encase the very spirit of Chennai within. We lacked the linguistic compatibility for any profound soul-searching, but managed a bare-bones exchange about the pleasant weather followed by a companionable silence. At that moment for me, he was Chennai Incarnate itself: if we couldn’t understand each other very well, we could at the very least remain civil, I thought.
For the rest of my stay in Chennai, I remained an indignant spectator and occasional participant as almost every autorickshaw driver I met (barring the Namma Auto-drivers, whom I never met) brazenly broke the code I seemed to have established with my first cabbie in the city. Some of them didn’t just break it, they flung that code of proprietary down on the ground and stomped on it, jumping with glee as I stared in horror. Don’t get me wrong, just because I’m from Bombay doesn’t mean I’m a noob at handling difficult auto-drivers, I’ve dealt with some borderline-manic Jat auto-drivers from my time in Gurgaon (yes if it sounds like I was serving a sentence in a penitentiary, the parallel is not far off the mark, Gurgaon is how hell would look on a bad day). But Chennai was a different ball-game.
In places like Gurgaon, the rules are simple: the minimum fare is Rs.50, from thereon the driver will demand figures that are multiples of 50 for every kilometre, which you can negotiate and get down to maybe Rs.40 per kilometre. Yep, that’s the usual drill, submit yourself to vehicular extortion unless you wish to be pedestrian roadkill under an Audi helmed by a drunk Gujjar packing a revolver, just in case you aren’t already dead. But the fact remains that once a price has been agreed upon in Gurgaon, none of the parties turn back on their word, it’s a cat-and-mouse game wherein the person who blinks first loses.
In Chennai it’s more complicated than that. Here, you’re treated less like passengers and more like hitchhikers who have to pay for transport. First, you mouth ‘Evalo‘ and the driver quotes an arbitrary figure that’ll roughly amount to three times the meter fare. You either express incredulity or walk away. Finally after some haggling once you’ve reached a settlement, you settle back to enjoy the ride, thinking you’ve got it going for you, three-fourths of the originally quoted price doesn’t reflect poor bargaining skills, maybe you’ve learnt a thing of two from your mother in her element at the sabji mandi. But then, things start souring. The driver realizes that the place you asked him to take you (X) and the place you actually want to go(Y) is 200 metres down a leafy lane that leads off X. Woe begone you at this point! The driver slows down his auto to a crawl and starts muttering Tamil abuses in the undertone of a housefly that’s just out of reach, you would swat at him if you could but you can’t so you clam up and hope to God he doesn’t take the muttering to the next level and raise a hue and cry about the price once you’ve reached your destination. But he does just that and won’t stop bickering until he’s exacted twenty rupees above the settled price, citing reasons as unoriginal as “I won’t get passengers on the way back”. The bottomline: an auto ride in Chennai is rarely a satisfactory experience; you cannot enjoy the smugness of striking a good bargain or experience the adrenaline rush of a full-blown argument, considering you lack the vocabulary.
Chennai auto-drivers lack any sense of honour and a curious moral lacuna afflicts them leaving them incapable of respecting the sanctity of a settlement. And this has been the case for the last 15 years. They have developed into churlish creatures for whom the meter is an obsolete relic and the passenger, a use-and-throw resource. “Every autorickshaw driver is the member of a union and every union is affiliated to a political party. That is why no political party is interested in solving this problem. The police and political leaders are backing them,” says Ramamurthy, an advocate who has fought tooth and nail in various courts including the Supreme Court to install meters in every Chennai auto.
Compared to other Chennai residents, we were fortunate to be able to witness the return of the meter halfway through our short 10-month stay at ACJ. On August 25, 2013, the Jayalalitha government made the use of meter compulsory for auto-drivers, after years of daylight robbery; but to no avail, since auto-drivers remained incorrigible and refused to go by meter once enforcement had cooled down. However, this measure often led to an intermediate compromise between passengers and drivers. Auto-drivers who had been coddled for years as a law-unto-themselves couldn’t stomach the sudden drop in their incomes and declined to take you unless you placated them with a token quote of “Meter + 10” or “Meter + 20”.
After complaints by passengers about such behaviour, the RTO introduced a service for anonymous registration of SMS complaints against errant auto-drivers. More than 300 vehicles were impounded as a result. Auto-unions howled in protest against the fact that the complainant could remain anonymous; some of them filed a petition with the Madras High Court alleging that many of these anonymous complaints were being made by share auto operators. I thought this was a typical whiny response befitting an auto-union since anecdotal evidence confirmed that many were indeed refusing to go by meter. I decided to do a story on auto-drivers for the college newspaper to understand the root of this malaise. To my surprise, an RTO official confirmed that around 2 out of 10 of these complaints were indeed fake.
Share autos were introduced in the city in 1998 and rapidly emerged as the second most popular mode of transportation because of cheap and convenient conveyance over short distances, pipping autorickshaws by quite a margin in terms of the number of passengers they ferry daily. They often carry up to 10 passengers but do not possess a ‘stage carriage’ license required by law. Most of them operate on a ‘contract carriage’ license which permits them to ply up to three passengers on a ‘point-to-point’ basis, while some are registered as ‘tourist maxi cabs’ which can only be used for ‘the conveyance of bonafide tourists’ and not ‘ply in competition with regular taxis’. Due to this, share autos often have to pay a preemptive ‘fine’ to traffic policemen to avoid harassment. This is big business considering share autos generate daily revenues of nearly Rs.2 crore. Interestingly, in a blatant case of conflict of interest, many of these share autos happen to be owned by traffic constables who then conveniently give the green signal to the share autos they own, according to a traffic policemen at Thiruvanmiyur. This needs to stop.
As for autos, they need to realize that they have no option but to comply with the new laws in the face of rising consumer awareness and frequent crackdowns by plainclothesmen policemen posing as passengers. Their usual complaint, that share autos are ‘stealing their business’ is superficial and unfair. By that logic, even public buses shouldn’t be allowed to ply in order to protect their interests. They protest the fact that share autos operate ‘illegally’ in connivance with corrupt policemen, an argument which’ll be demolished once this inefficiency is fixed. Also, given than autorickshaws in cities like Bombay and Delhi co-exist with various modes of public transportation and don’t cry foul or blame them for snatching their livelihood, they need to tone down the self-righteousness.
Chennai’s need of the hour is the issuance of fresh licenses to share autos – who provide a valuable, cheap service to citizens – so they can operate without fear of breaking the law. If it is widely known that they operate as share autos there’s no reason not to issue them a legitimate ‘stage carriage’ license. This will resolve the perceived clash of interests between autos and share autos, and prevent policemen from exploiting any legal loopholes. While the introduction of the meter is a laudable albeit belated measure, the fact remains that autos are mostly used by the better-off in society. Authorities need to recognize that share autos cater to all social strata, and hence legitimize its operations and integrate them with local train stations and MTC bus stops as feeder systems.
And if that can’t be done, please scrap the Namma Auto – an exalted exotic bird occasionally sighted glinting in the sun before it flits away – and introduce the Amma Auto, if you will, by applying all of Jayalalitha’s diverse expertise in branded populism. This is probably the only way commuters will be able to remember every ride in Chennai as fondly as I recall my first ride from the airport in a new city as a nervous interview candidate (though his good behaviour makes sense in retrospect considering it was a pre-paid ride). I can testify that this random act of civility unwittingly helped me make up my mind about choosing ACJ. I hope you’re listening, oh Puratchi Thalaivi!