What the Auto Drivers think about India Today

Having conversations with Taxi and Auto drivers started as a hobby – born out of curiosity to know more of the lives of fellow Indians - but now it is an obsession – it tells me more about India in a few minutes, than watching our breathless TV channels and market driven newspapers.

Ravi - 13th March 2010 
Auto rickshaw from Nizamuddin station to NOIDA.

Ravi is a chirpy rotund man in his mid thirties. A little nudge to get him started by asking him the cost of a new auto and how much he makes a month, was enough to get him started. He told me of the Delhi government’s latest scheme to give all old auto owners new auto rickshaws to replace their older machines at subsidized prices before the Commonwealth Games.

The problem in India, he says, is not of “kanoon” (laws), but the endemic corruption which was killing any aam admi trying to earn an honest living. He recounted how a few weeks ago he wanted a gazetted officers signature on a document for his sons admission to a school. Since he did not know any gazzetted officer, he decided to ask the SDM in the suburbs of Delhi where he lives, to sign the document. After waiting hours at the reception of the SDMs office and pleading with the Chaprassi, he got to enter the office and meet him. The SDM was brusque and told him that since he didn’t know who he was, inspite of his identification papers, he couldn’t vouch for him. He was asked to leave. Unlike most Indians from less privileged backgrounds, who have a deferential view of people in powerful positions, Ravi was determined that he would get the document attested. He asked the Chaprassi if he could help. The Chaprassi said that Rs 1500 could probably solve his problem. He gave him the money and waited. Two hours later, the Chaprassi had got the signature done from the same SDM who had earlier refused to help.

Again, unlike most Indians who would have left happily having their job done for a small consideration, he decided to now confront the SDM. He barged into his office, waived the papers, and asked him, “saab, ab rishta kaiise ho gayaa?!” (how did we now get acquainted?) He laughs when remembering how the SDM’s face drained of colour! Not only did the SDM ask him to sit and cool down, but he got the Chaprassi to give him a Rs 750 discount!!

Ravinder Mallick - 21st March 2010
Taxi from Palam Airport to NOIDA

Mallick is a thick set, handsome man in his early forties, with a walrus mustache. He drives an air-conditioned luxury taxi. He paid Rs 50,000 to the company as deposit and drives the taxi whenever paged by the company - but at his convenience. He says he returns home by 7 in the evening to spend time with his wife and his two kids – a boy and a girl. He belongs to a Jat Village near Munirka which owned much land in this area in the early seventies which the government then suddenly acquired. He tells me that the elders of the village are still fighting a legal battle for suitable compensation in the Delhi high court – though he sees no hope in the case. I asked him about his children and where they go to school. His son is in the 5th grade and goes to a well known upper middle class public school of south Delhi – Bhatnagar Public School on a EWS (economically weaker section ) quota. He was aware that most schools in south Delhi had received land at subsidized rates, in the seventies and eighties, and were to reserve 20 % seats for the EWS. He says they only provide lip service to this provision and take in just a handful of children to notionally comply with the regulations. He also said the other school in the area, Delhi Public School, does an awful thing (bakwaas!) by segregating children by having separate evening classes for the EWS children. He said he chose Bhatnagar school as the classes are fully integrated and there was no discrimination whatsoever.

I asked him then about his daughters school. He said she goes to a Kendriya Vidyalaya (KV) School nearby and recounted his experience of getting her admission in KV. He said he applied for two years consecutively, following the due processes, and each time his daughters name did not figure in the list of admissions pasted on the School notice board. He then was told by some friends who knew how the system works, to meet the Chapdassi to the Principal. He met him and paid him Rs 25,000. He says he doesn’t know who all ate up the money, but his daughters name was in the list that year!

Imraan - 25th March
Taxi from Airport to NOIDA while returning from Mumbai

Imran is from a village near Moradabad – 160 kms from Delhi. He is a wisp of a man with an easy smile and an earthy sense of humour. When we started talking he said it was an interesting coincidence that I was the third Army man who was his customer for the day!

He told me he spent the first 12 years of his taxi career driving a “Kali Peeli” taxi (Black and Yellow Fiat taxis of Mumbai, as much a Mumbai relic as the Gateway of India!) in Mumbai and then the next 12 years in Delhi driving this spacious air-conditioned Hyundai. Having just returned from Mumbai and sat in about ten of the very cramped, broken down Kali Peelis – it was natural for me to ask him to compare driving taxis in Mumbai to life in Delhi. He said, money is easier in Delhi, but people in Mumbai are what they are. If there are dance bars, everyone knows that there, whereas in Delhi there is too much of pretence. Everyone is trying to show off and lead an artificial life – “ yehain deekhawa jaroori hain, chahey saans bhi kist mein le raha ho! “ (here - showing off is a must, even if one is breathing air paid on installments!)

Rajbir - 30th March 2010
Auto from Sarita Vihar to NOIDA.

Rajbir is a twenty something kid with a just spouted mustache. He negotiated a 100 rupee deal to take me across the border to NOIDA. I asked him why the UP autos don’t charge by meter and charge whatever they feel like. He said he has to pay the “demand” every month to be allowed to do the trip from NOIDA to Delhi on a UP registered auto rickshaw. On my query about what “demand” was, he says that is the fixed amount of Rs 1500 he pays to the Delhi cops, to be allowed to ply the auto across the border. They change every month – and he pays money every month to operate unhindered.

He also told me how he bought the auto which otherwise costs Rs 1 lakh 30 thousand for 1 lakh 80,000 rupees. He paid an advance of Rs 50,000 rupees, and an auto financier paid the balance at 30 % interest per annum. Three of his auto rickshaw acquaintances stood surety for him for his monthly installments. He told me that he was happier here than at Faisabad - which is where he belongs to. I asked him about the Babri Masjid demolition, he just said, “pathar gira kar to garib ka pet to nahim bharta – Mussallman ho yah Hindu? (Breaking stones wont fill a poor man’s stomach – whether a Muslim or a Hindu)

I just wonder - how insightful it would be for our leaders – and those in public life – to travel by autos and taxis - rather than with their entourages and their well protected government transport! Didn’t Gandhiji – the politician – do that?   


More by :  Col. Gopal Karunakaran

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