No one should grudge the better quality of life others have. If the income improvement upgrades the quality of life, however measured, so be it. That is why everyone hankers after salary hikes, dearness allowance increases. People even change their jobs and even the line of work.
A taxi ride for the minimum distance costs Rs 19 as against Rs 17, an auto rickshaw ride Rs 18 instead of Rs 15, effective from today. This is the third fare hike within a year, and the clamour for hikes has been pegged on unabated inflation. The transport operators have their justification, but the consumers have their own too. This has been ignored entirely.
And yet, how should one look at the fare increases granted to autorickshaw and taxis in the Mumbai metropolitan region? However, expensive the life now is, these increases—Rs 3 for the three-wheelers and Re 2 for the taxis at the minimum slab —is unwarranted for a variety of reasons.
It is like the government has buckled down to the community which not only holds the city to ransom every now and then, using the principle of ‘my way or the highway’, without conditions. These conditions were as important to the millions who use these for these use-and-pay vehicles as the fare hikes were.
It is hard to accept the logic, unexplained as yet, that fare hikes did not require disciplining the tribe which ferries people around, keeping the economy moving. Transport is a crucial element of economy; everything cannot be done on the Internet or by cell phones.
Consumer bodies have been crying themselves hoarse that this community has been proven to fleece the users by rigged meters, their arrogance on display apart. The occasional, nominal checks described as ‘campaigns’ by the various Road Transport Offices (RTOs) have meant little in curbing the menace.
Let me list the consumer objections to the fare increases, however otherwise justified.
One, the black-and-yellow taxis, an iconic feature of Mumbai for long, are in a pitiable condition. It is amazing that they are ‘passed’ by the respective RTOs regardless of their ramshackle state. One need not merely suspect, but know why: ask any taxi driver and he would tell you that bribes are routine.
Two, ditto with the auto rickshaws, more visible as you move northwards from the confines of the city or town, which is the area from Colaba to Sion, to Mankhurd, and Mahim. With these, however, their condition is less an issue than their meters are. The entire suburbs and extended suburbs depend on them for intra- and inter-suburb movement in a city which has only strong linear north-south public transport.
When new meters are required to be fitted to the vehicles only then they return for the periodic inspection by the RTO for their road worthiness, and the new electronic and the old mechanical ones are not be recalibrated as a precondition. This precondition is not unreasonable.
When the authorities are lax and are in a mood to grab, law and rule enforcement are more a weapon for loot than ensuring adherence to both. This being the situation, the highest bidder gets the best plums, even if it means faulty auto rickshaw meters.
These meters are also of dubious standards. The Maharashtra RTA has suspended the approval to one of them for delivering faulty meters and issued show-cause notices to others. Even if that were to work, the auto drivers have not been taught the intricacies of using them properly.
When you flag down a three-wheeler, and it has just discharged a fare, a mere ‘downing the meter’ does not help. The meter ticks with half-a-kilometre already registered. For a short ride, it means a forced overpayment by almost a quarter or half the legitimate fare. The officials know it, but have not once taken it upon themselves to educate the drivers.
Then there is the other method to cheat: use four-ply tyres which are dimensionally smaller than the longer lasting six-ply. The four-ply tyres being thinner, have a smaller circumference than the six-ply and since the meter works on the number of turns the wheels have gone through, the advantage is the autowallah’s. Does the RTO check this? I have not heard of it, not once.
A retired RTO tells me that even a decade ago, Rs 10,000 would be brought to their tables every day. Since the RTOs are run by the agents, the officials merely sign the required papers relating to permits, licences, road worthiness etc. It is not hard to imagine the size of the racket.
That is precisely why the road transport authorities need to be honest, citizen-minded, before they are allowed to deal with such a crucial sector. This is precisely why the consumers’ protests ought to have been heard. Regardless of committees being appointed to determine fare rates, it is evident that those who should make transport easy and at reasonable cost and those who should carry you are thus hand in glove.