How can one tell whether a meter is tampered? How are meters tampered? What percentage of auto-rickshaws in Hyderabad would have tampered meters?
A. Drivers tell us that you can judge whether an auto meter is tampered from whether or not the meter seal is broken. However, an unbroken seal is no guarantee that the meter is not tampered with. We strongly advocate a somewhat philosophical stance towards this problem. Not all meters are fixed. Some are fixed but it is not easy to tell from the appearance unless you are an experienced commuter and can pick up signals that are often very intangible. Meter tampering is a symptom of a larger systemic malaise where the odds are heavily stacked against both the auto-rickshaw driver and the low budget commuter. It may seem counter-intuitive but in most instances when you have been overcharged you are probably on the same side as the driver against the system.
Government agencies, especially the traffic police, periodically conduct drives to penalize auto drivers with faulty meters. But they direct their attacks, just like the commuting public, at the most visible element of the auto rickshaw industry, i.e. the driver. Most auto drivers in the city are renters rather than owners and the responsibility of ensuring the proper functioning of the meter is on the owner/contractor. Further, drivers whose vehicles are ‘under finance’ have to pay monthly installments to the financier from the money they make by driving. So, when drivers get penalized, their incomes get affected, and in order to make up for the losses, they are likely to continue to ply with faulty meters or bargain for fare, rather than turn on the meter. Thus, the problem continues, and largely because of the steps taken to address it.
B. Tampered meters have been a source of frustration since auto-rickshaws in Hyderabad had mechanical meters. Mechanical meters were present in all auto-rickshaws until 2006. In these meters, gears present in the top right (refer to the image above) are connected to the rear axle of the auto-rickshaw. Thus, the rotations of the wheel dictated how fast the gears would rotate and thus the meter. Tampering with these was a relatively simple process. If the gap between the teeth of the the gears were filled out with additional material packing the wheels turn faster and thus the meter would show higher readings. Known popularly as ‘meter setting’, this practice resulted in stepped increases of 5 per cent, 10, per cent, 20 per cent or even 25 per cent above the legal fare depending on how confident the driver felt. By 2006, there was outrage against the mechanical meter being in use and with GO 213, the Government made it mandatory for all auto-rickshaw drivers to switch to digital meters. The unions had protested against this move as digital meters were twice as expensive as the mechanical ones, needed new repair centres and were not as tamper proof as claimed. However, the then Transport Minister, Kanna Laxminarayana, enforced heavy fines on auto-rickshaws with mechanical meters and gradually by the end of 2007, all auto-rickshaws fell in line. However, as the Unions had predicted, these meters are not tamper proof.
Digital meters use electric pulses to measure both distance and time. To record the distance traveled, the meter relies on a sensor attached to the vehicle’s transmission. The sensor sends an electric pulse to the meter every time the vehicle travels a given distance. Inside the meter itself, there is a timer that sends out a pulse when a set amount of time passes. Pulses come from either sensor at intervals that are smaller than the fare interval. Altering the pulse of the meter results in altered readings.
There are four common techniques of altering digital meter readings, but all of them aim at increasing pulse rate:
- Switch Pressing – There’s a switch that is usually located under the seat of the driver. Each time it is pressed, the pulse rate of the meter doubles.
- Hyderabad Method– A two way switch device is connected to the engine. The switch has two modes. The driver chooses the mode based on his judgement of the passenger. It is connected with wires to the engine which increase the pulse, thus calculating fare at a higher speed and over a longer distance. The advantage of this technique is that there’s no physical tampering of the meter, but it can also be detached in case of an inspection by the RTA/Police.
- Capacitor -A capacitor is connected to a either the indicator lamps or front brake. Whenever the vehicle turns, or the brake is pressed, the pulse rate increases and the fare increases
- Wheel Alteration – This is a mechanical method which relies on rigging the four wheel-like components in the meter.
Rates for fixing meters vary according to the paise jump needed. Some places offer 10 paise jumps that cost Rs 500, and 20 paise jumps that cost Rs 800.
C. Data on tampered auto-rickshaw meters is not available with any government agency. Even auto-rickshaw mechanics in different parts of the city are unable to provide an estimate. The inconsistency in the data on number of auto-rickshaws in the city, lack of data on number of repair shops, and the absence of a quality check on metering devices other than during the yearly renewal of the meter certificate make it difficult to arrive at an approximate value. The lack of manpower at the two offices of the Legal Metrology Department in the city contribute to the problem by making the process of meter certificate renewal difficult for auto drivers.
“When digital meters were introduced in Hyderabad, we did a major struggle. Not only were they too expensive for individual drivers to afford, but even minor repair works would cost us a day’s income. When the mechanical meter was in use, gears were available for Rs 10 to Rs 25. In the case of digital meters, even to remove dust off the wires, they charge Rs 500. So most people don’t get it repaired” – Interview with leaders of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) – 10th March 2015.
Post by Harsha Devulapalli and Ojas Shetty with inputs from the HUL Team.
The auto-rickshaw research was conducted primarily by Ojas Shetty and Harsha Devulapalli.