The colours of paratransit

Post by Ritika Sebastian with Inputs from the Hyderabad Urban Lab team. 

The first thing that struck me about the auto rickshaws in Hyderabad is that they were mustard yellow in color. (There are some all in black but these are only for private use; and recently, a local NGO Vaada Foundation introduced some pink colored autos driven by women and for use exclusively for use by women.) But there must have been something about me too that screamed “I am a stranger to this city.” It was a while before I could persuade an autorickshaw to go by the meter rather than by an arbitrary fare. But once we got past this, the driver was frank, helpful and very willing to share his story.

In the last six weeks of my interning at Hyderabad Urban Lab, I have come to get a sense of how important auto rickshaws are for moving around in the city. Thankfully, there hasn’t been an autorickshaw strike during my stay here, but I can imagine how the entire city could come to a standstill if the auto rickshaws go off the streets even for one day. And yet, I found no mention of their contribution to the economy in planning and policy documents. I found no mention of their lives discussions in any newspapers.

It is difficult to put a correct figure on the number of auto rickshaws on the streets of Hyderabad. Officially, there are a total of 97,358 [see report here] in Hyderabad district (The transport authority is a line department which works within jurisdictions that correspond with district boundaries). But this is a gross under-estimate of the actual number of autorickshaws plying in and around the urban agglomeration of Hyderabad. This is partly due to the fact that the urban agglomeration of Hyderabad today includes one entire district – Hyderabad and parts of another district called Ranga Reddy. And to confound this further, the mobility plans as mandated by the law are being made for the entire Hyderabad metropolitan area (HMA) which goes beyond these two districts. A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation should tell us that if each autorickshaw supports a family of four, we are looking at anywhere between 4 to 8 lakh population directly dependent on the autorickshaw as the main breadwinner. Add to that another 4 lakh people who should be at a conservative estimate dependent on commuting by the autorickshaw for their livelihoods. These could be thousands of workers in the informal sector, as well as low and middle income families who cannot afford private transportation and do not have access to decent mass transit due to gender, age and location barriers. autos are registered with the Road Transport Authority.

Hyderabaddraft2-01The above is a map of share auto routes laid on top of our.bus frequency network map of Hyderabad.  The list of share auto routes has been crowdsourced and put up here :  bit.ly/1bJNqsI  If you know any routes that are not seen on the map, let us know.

[According to the survey statistic provided by the Lea Consultants report on Hyderabad’s mobility plan, on an average a personalized auto/taxi operator travels about 123km and makes an average of 11 trips per day. While shared auto/taxi operators on an average travel a distance of 83km and make about 9 trips per day. Just the numbers indicate what a large percentage of the city’s population depends on auto rickshaws. If we count an average of 3 commuters per registered auto of the 98000 that we have, we see that over 3 lakh people use it in just one trip. Add to that those that depend on the income of 98000 drivers and we have an approximate seven lakh people depending on the auto rickshaw industry. This is not counting the shared auto service and the unregistered ones.]

But numbers apart, it is clear from conversations with autorickshaw drivers that auto rickshaws operate in and anchor a large informal economy. Some of the drivers are long time residents of Hyderabad but a very large number of them are from nearby districts in Telangana and a few are even from other parts of the country. A majority of them seem to have gravitated to the city due to dwindling opportunities in agriculture at home and found the autorickshaw to be a low entry barrier occupation. All you need is some driving skill and a license and you are set to go.

So, as we noted, the district of registration is one way of categorizing autorickshaws in Hyderabad. Those registered outside the Hyderabad district are not allowed to ply inside the Hyderabad district which forms the core of the urban agglomeration.

Then there is another way of categorizing them. There are the four seater autos, which are meant to carry three passengers only and charge by electronic meters. It is another matter that most drivers bargain and negotiate the fares for each trip. They say this is partly because the legally allowed tariff is just too low. But also because even electronic meters are subject to tampering and commuters themselves prefer to negotiate the fare rather than go by the meter.

Then there the seven seater autos which are officially permitted to run as shared autos, on the inner ring road and not within the city.They often violate these norms and ply within the city limits. These are the lifeline of many areas on the outskirts of the city where the bus services are too infrequent.

And then there are hundreds of routes in the city which are under served by buses. These areas are served by four seater autorickshaws which run as shared autorickshaws. Many of these autorickshaws stick to dedicated routes and charge a fixed amount per passenger per trip. These autorickshaws operate in the grey area of the law. But since the system works well for commuters nobody minds except when the driver attempts to pick up one too many passengers.

Both among the autorickshaws registered in Ranga Reddy and in Hyderabad districts, there are many who make monthly arrangements with customers to take children to schools and pick them up again, or to take office workers from home and drop them back after work. These arrangements depend on relationships of trust developed over time and provide drivers with assured income.

On an average, an auto driver’s income is between six and nine thousand rupees per month. Although these earnings seem to have increased over the last 10 years, the real incomes appear to have only marginally improved. In many cases it is hard to pin down increases in income and wellbeing because over the years wives of autorickshaw drivers have entered the labour market for domestic work and other low and service jobs and are contributing part of the income. But one thing that has not changed over the years is the fact that rising fuel prices, bribes and fines they have to pay to policemen for traffic offences on the unruly roads of Hyderabad, medical emergencies – just about anything can destroy the household economy and send the driver into a debt trap.

In the past two years there have been three strikes in February and September 2013 and again in January 2014[2] . One of the demands of the last strike in which thirteen auto unions and   had participated, was to increase auto fares and reduce the hike in fine from rupees one thousand to one hundred. Autorickshaw drivers often say that tariff hikes are delayed and meagre. Yet there is something odd about this situation. The auto tariff today is not that much lower than cab fares. The only difference is that cabs are not available for street hail. They operate by time blocks or distance blocks. This leaves a large market open for autorickshaws while making cabs viable.

The question of how to ensure decent income levels for autorickshaw drivers does not appear to have caught anyone’s imagination yet. To the extent that autorickshaws appear to be of concern to policymakers, it is only as a source of pollution. Most reports on the auto rickshaw sector in cities identify governance, regulation,the unorganized nature of the sector, lack of infrastructure provision, vehicle design and operational inefficiencies as the main issues that need to be addressed. Within the paradigm of transportation planning, the focus on auto rickshaws have a single perspective, that of the market economy – a monochromatic vision. What we need is a more culturally attuned – a vision that can pick up the vivid colours of life in paratransit – to make Hyderabad a live up to its reputation as the people friendly city – as a city.

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1 Response

  1. February 23, 2015

    […] their way with auto-drivers by charging ridiculously high fines. It is also the case that these informal arrangements vary in different locations giving rise to services like the share-auto. On the other hand, we must also acknowledge that […]

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