If Delhi were a Hindu god, itís vahan would be an autoricksha. Not its black-and-yellow taxis, nor its newly comfortable, colour-coded buses (orange, green and red), not even its too-good-to-be-true Metro, but its three-wheeled autos. According to Delhiís transport minister, some 75,000 autorickshas ply in the city. Multiply that by an average family of four and you have, by a conservative estimate, 300,000 people directly dependent on the trade.
All middle-class dilliwallahs use autos, regardless of whether they own their own cars or scooters or motorcycles. (The only class of dilliwallah that doesnít use autos is the chaufferati. Given that this social sliver drills its own water, generates its own electricity and either dreams about or actually lives in Gurgaon, itís a mistake to think of it as a part of Delhiís demography: its members are best understood as a special subset of NRIs who donít live abroad.)
They use them because taxis are too expensive, because the Metro doesnít run all night, because theyíre too tired to walk the last mile home from the bus stop or the Metro station. Housewives depend on them to get to the shops or to pick up their children from schools that donít run buses. Drunk undergraduates ride them in the small hours to their paying-guest warrens when every other form of transport has abandoned Delhiís streets. Travelling to and from the laden chaos of Delhiís railway stations would be unimaginable without these buzzing yellow-and-green hornets.
And yet, instead of celebrating the auto, Delhiís good citizens log hours of conversational time reviling autorickshaw drivers. Everyone has a bad-auto story and itís almost always uninteresting. Nearly all of them are about that great Delhi fetish, the autorickshaw meter. Some cultures use the weather as a conversational prop; dilliwallahs cosy up to strangers by playing variations on the Infernal Meter.
So thereís the Didnít Go by Meter moan or the more plaintive Didnít Put the Meter Down Properly whine. ďIt should have changed after the traffic light, aunty, starting from Gargi it isnít even a kilometre!Ē Even if the auto driver agrees to use the meter without demur and Ďdownsí it properly and even if it does only change after the nominated traffic light, by the end of the journey, the evil imp that inhabits all autos makes sure that the Meter Is Fast.
The truth, of course, is that itís Delhiís middle-class commuters who are evil. Okay, not evil, but so constrained by salaried incomes and so corroded by urban rage and suspicion that they see self- employed people who offer services as the enemy. Take the press-wallah who collects washed clothes and returns them neatly ironed. Holding down the price per ironed item is the one act of solidarity to which middle-class neighbourhoods are energetically committed. It doesnít matter how much the cost of coal has risen or how much it now costs the press-wallah to commute into your neighbourhood (because you wonít let him build a jhuggi to live in), three rupees a shirt is loot and any more would count as dacoity.
Sustaining middle-class respectability on a budget in Delhi, as in all big cities, is such a struggle, that it rules out any empathy for the self-respecting poor. Weíre capable of sporadic acts of generosity to people we think of as servants (evolved Anglophones carefully call them the Ďhelpí), namely the deferential poor who are wholly dependent on us, but the independent, Ďfree-rangeí poor, who donít tug their forelocks and arenít corralled in servantís quarters, can only be understood as predators, chronically disrupting the order of urban spaces by constantly breaking the law.
This suspicion is confirmed as the truth when the State agrees and in a city like Delhi, ruled by the urban salariat, the State treats autorickshaw drivers in the way that the Raj used to treat Criminal Tribes. The Hindu recently carried a news report, which, in its tenor and content sums up the neat consensus consolidated by the salariat and its state. Consider this headline: ďDelhi govt to tighten noose on errant auto driversĒ. The promise of this robust header was borne out by the opening paragraph: ďTo address the issue of safety of passengers and complaints of overcharging and misbehaviour against auto-rickshaw drivers, the Transport Department of Delhi Government has decided to use the services of the Delhi Traffic Police, the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System and the Police Control Room to evolve a mechanism whereby harassed commuters would be able to report any incident through the emergency buttons provided in the auto-rickshaws.Ē
The truth is that far from being the thieving predators that bulletins like this make them out to be, autorickshaw drivers are the very definition of the respectable poor. They live in non-Ďregularizedí colonies, they send their children to municipal corporation schools, they are nearly always literate, many of them have high-school certificates and some have college degrees that didnít help them achieve salaried gentility. Many of them are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who work desperately hard to scratch out a living and send money home.
Till recently, an autorickshaw could cost as much as Rs 600,000 when the actual cost of a new vehicle was under Rs 200,000. This happened because of an artificial scarcity of permits, which meant that the price of the auto consisted mainly of the bribe paid to corrupt transport officials to get a permit to drive one. Not content with crushing the auto-driver with debt up front, the government then panders to the cityís salariat by not raising fares each time the price of CNG rises. In effect, then, the auto-driver subsidizes his middle-class customers every time this happens. It isnít surprising that he doesnít love his meter readings. The wonder is not that autorickshaw unions go on strike; the wonder is that they donít strike more often. The reason they donít is obvious: unlike salaried sarkari malingerers, each day an auto-driver doesnít work is a day that he, metaphorically, doesnít eat.
The newspaper report I quoted from, tells us that the State sees auto-drivers as a threat to public safety. The talk of emergency buttons in a city as unsafe for women, as Delhi notoriously is, immediately evokes the prospect of rape and molestation. It is worth saying here that the main danger to women in this city are the young hoods who cruise the streets in private cars with darkened windows looking to pull women in. Rape in Delhi is much more likely to occur in a bus supervised by uniformed conductors and drivers than it is in an auto, which is, effectively, a travelling tin can open on all sides.
Auto-drivers are more often the victims of violence than its perpetrators. Every auto-driver I have spoken to has a story about being mugged by thuggish passengers. It is a vulnerable business, driving an auto through Delhiís dark distances.
We should celebrate the autorickshaw; itís an affordable, wonderfully ventilated way of getting around this city. No odours assail you when you board it and no sinister tinted windows or lockable doors shut you away from the public gaze. What you see is what you get, and that, in a city as opaque as Delhi, is a minor miracle.
The autorickshaw driver is a hard working man, trying to make a small living despite rent-seeking bureaucrats and paisa-pinching customers incapable of empathy. He canít conform to our salaried vision of the desirably docile Indian because he isnít cut out to be Tonto. He is, instead, our capitalís Lone Ranger and we are lucky to have him.