There is an ugly underbelly to the odd-even traffic thinning in Delhi that is not getting much attention. The rich are dumping their drivers. In a city where nearly everyone with a car has a driver (they are literally accessories) and memsahibs get comically transported in toy cars sitting imperially at the back. These cars are often driven by young men surrendering hope and ambition for a dreary job because at least some money is coming in.
Now even that is in jeopardy. I am talking to three young men whose employers have cut their monthly wages by 50 percent. Even though it is only a trial period.
If the division comes to stay they will be perennially paid by day.
Says 25-year-old Rahul, "Sir told me 'Beta, you don’t drive on odd days, we have only one car. Why should I pay you for 30 days? If you don’t want to work we will find someone else.'"
He has been with them for over a year but that counts for nothing.
On this warm winter Wednesday in Delhi a clutch of drivers sit hunkered under a tree waiting for the call from the boss in this South Delhi so-called upscale colony. With an average salary of Rs 15,000 they are heatedly discussing the slash in salaries. I join them as a guest of Rahul’s. They all seem cut from the same cookie cutter, jeans, sandals, a muffler and an ill-fitting sweater. And all under 30 years.
The heat goes out of the debate because they have no ideas. One of them says he has overheard his employer discussing a link up with a neighbour so that they share one driver’s salary and sack the other. It is just a question of choosing one for the sacrifice. In our system, talking about domestics within their earshot is par for the course.
I ask them why they cannot complain or form a union. They look at me witheringly as if I come from another planet. Complain to whom? About what? They are getting 15 days work. So why would the boss pay for 30? Amazingly a few of the drivers actually understand the cruel logic of it.
Says Ravi, a slightly older version of the stereotype. “We won’t die of pollution, we’ll die of poverty.”
The others laugh dryly. Asokan, slightly older than the rest, sneers and lights up a cigarette to display his independence and disdain for me, in his eyes one of that thoughtless sahib log 'tribe'.
But their plight underscores an aspect largely ignored. They are running scared. Once private drivers get shafted how long will it be before companies and corporations begin retrenching their chauffeurs. Schools their bus drivers. The very rich dropping their three drivers to two. Delivery vans reducing their fleets. It all impacts.
At a rough estimate there about 300,000 drivers in the city with the majority in the South Delhi province.
Add to that less profit for petrol stations and car washes with there being less cars and culling of staff numbers will occur. Mechanics will also suffer as there is 50 percent less wear and tear on vehicles. The tyre industry will witness a slow down as will spare parts.
Perhaps the goal is worth that risk of losing jobs but really, you cannot suddenly pay your driver half a salary, that is just not done.