Auto-rickshaw Unions: Who’s in them? What do they do?
This post is part of a series on auto-rickshaws.
In a city like Hyderabad, with over 1 lakh auto-rickshaw drivers, there are anywhere between 17 to 24 trade unions dealing specifically with issues concerning auto drivers. However, only 10 – 12 % of the total numbers of drivers in the city i.e. around 10 thousand people or so are members of all unions put together. This is because membership in a union requires regular attendance at meetings and dharnas, and solidarity during strikes. As a result most union members tend to be owner-drivers and contractors with durable networks of contractual (ratab) operation and sufficient income security to spare time for different union related activities. While most unions are affiliated to local, regional and national political parties, many are founded at and operate around specific auto-rickshaw stands in the city.
In the course of our research on the auto-rickshaw segment in Hyderabad, we interviewed leaders and members of several prominent unions in the city – particularly those belonging to Telangana Auto-Drivers Joint Action Committee (TADJAC), Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) and Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC). Through these conversations we learnt that in the 15 years and longer time-span in which these unions have been active, they’ve managed to bargain and acquire for auto drivers a number of different provisions which have mitigated, to a certain extent, the consistent uncertainty that they face with regards to income, housing and so on. Particular agitations and strikes over the years, focussed on welfare and social security, have made the difficulties in the lives of auto drivers a little more manageable, for example:
- Several union leaders and members still active today were in the forefront of the agitations in 1978 which led to introduction of the ‘1.5 x meter fare’ or ‘half-return’ for auto rides taken after 11 pm at night.
- They also campaigned for setting up prepaid auto stands next to major inter-state train stations like Secunderabad, Nampally and Kacheguda in 2011. However, of these only the one outside Secunderabad was set up and remains active to this day.
- Several unions have been actively campaigning with regards to the issue of housing for auto drivers in the last decade. With the rise in property rates and consequent effects on rental markets, auto drivers are unable to acquire housing within the city and are constantly being pushed to the outer limits. This becomes an issue when drivers apply for permits. So IFTU obtained 5 acres of land in Dammaiguda, made 225 plots of 100 yards each and gave it to auto drivers for free. However, as Dammaiguda is still fairly far away from the city, many plots lie vacant.
- Unions have also addressed several individual cases of harassment and sought justice against mistreatment by financiers and the various regulatory authorities of government. In several instances, through their networks and channels, they have enabled auto drivers to access loans and vehicles at cheaper interest rates.
Apart from these micro-issues, the unions have also been active in resisting larger policy changes which had a direct impact on the livelihoods of auto-rickshaw drivers. These include the mandatory shift to alternative fuels and forced conversion from mechanical to digital meters. But in both cases, the unions eventually had to concede. The consequent effects however, were detrimental for the auto-rickshaw industry as a whole and the lives of drivers in particular.
‘The Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority (EPCA), also known as the Bhure Lal committee, (after its chairperson) was directed by the Supreme Court in the year 2001 to determine what might be considered as clean fuel. The use of petrol and diesel were causing asthma and air pollution related diseases. Based on the report, all governments were directed to enforce switching their public transport and government vehicles to CNG. The other vehicles haven’t switched to CNG even today, but in 2004, all auto-rickshaws were forced to convert to LPG/CNG. We were told petrol auto-rickshaws must not run on city roads. To convert a petrol fuel-kit to an LPG or CNG kit, the cost was over Rs 20,000. The government promised us loans from banks and a subsidy of Rs 5000. In Bangalore they gave it, not here. There were 67000 autos then and a total of 12 lakh motor vehicles in the city. Now there are over 45 lakh vehicles. To apply for fitness and permit, auto-rickshaws had to be run on LPG or CNG. We spent money from our own pockets and the Government gave us no subsidy. They gave their recommendations to the committee. Since they had to submit something, they announced that they were putting a restriction on the number of auto-rickshaws since they’re a major source of pollution. And a ban on the release of contract carriage permits for auto-rickshaws ensued. From 2004 onward, to drive an auto, one had to scrap an existing petrol auto and take a new LPG/CNG auto on the old permit.’ – Interview with a member of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) 10th March 2015
The mandate of conversion from petrol engines to LPG/CNG engines, the cap on release of contract carriage permits, and the compulsory shift to digital meters, all led to compounded financial pressures on auto-rickshaw drivers. Owner-drivers and contractors were forced to take up the cost of conversion as well as the increased maintenance cost. The basic cost of the auto-rickshaw also increased in this period as newly introduced vehicles had to be modified according to new standards. Contractors were able to absorb these costs by increasing rents, passing the financial burden onto renter-drivers for whom the initial rise in income brought about by cheaper fuel was immediately eaten up by increased rents. Owner-drivers however, were the worst affected. In between paying monthly installments to financiers and making enough money to meet their household expenditure, the cost of conversion was too heavy for many to bear leading them to either borrow more money, thereby falling into a debt trap, or to sell their auto-rickshaw back to financiers.
With the cap on permits in place, existing permits gained value as a commodity and could be traded in black. This led to a hike in the price of these permits in the market, thereby further increasing the overall cost of the auto-rickshaw. Having already acquired a large number of these permits, financiers were effectively able to dominate the industry. A drive to regularize auto-rickshaw ownership documents, earlier this year handed over greater control into the hands of financiers.
 ‘Post the emergence of the TRS Party several new unions have been established. These ones are usually affiliated to a local Member of Legislative Assembly (MLA) candidate. The MLA organizes the union and the union members help him out during elections.’ – Interview with members of the Progressive Auto & Motor Workers’ Union (affiliated to IFTU) – 13th March 2015
 Mahatma Gandhi Auto Drivers’ Union (MGADU) is an example of one such auto-rickshaw union operating largely out of the pre-paid auto-rickshaw stand at Secunderabad station
 Other prominent auto-rickshaw unions in the city include All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC), Confederation of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh (BMS), NTADU, TRAKTU and BPTMM and so on.
 Interview with members of TADJAC – 3rd March 2015
 Interview with members of IFTU – 10th March 2015
 Interview with members of INTUC and Progressive Auto and Motor Workers’ Union (affiliated to IFTU) – 13th March and 28th May
 For a more detailed analysis of the effects of centrally legislated emissions policy and consequent rise of financiers see ‘On the road to nowhere? Auto-rickshaws in Delhi: The System, Problems and Recommendations’ by Simon Harding and Arshad Hussain, published by AMAN Public Charitable Trust, New Delhi.
Post by Ojas Shetty with inputs from the HUL team.
The research on auto-rickshaws was conducted primarily by Ojas Shetty and Harsha Devulapalli.