Turns out from 1 March onwards, (most) autos in Delhi are going to stay off the roads after 4 p.m., demanding a fare hike from the government. This is an indefinite partial strike and comes close on the heels of a 48-hour strike last month. But it also turns out that no one asked the majority of the auto drivers about it. Drivers who stand to lose a significant proportion of their earnings for an indefinite period of time. Drivers for whom it will make little difference even if the metered fare is officially raised.
On my way home from work today (well before 4 p.m.), I happened to ride with a particularly vocal driver who informed me about this strike. I already knew about it, but what caught my interest was the way he put it: “The union-wallahs are making us go on strike.”
“What’s the strike for?” I asked. “To increase fares?”
He shrugged and said, “It’s all politics.”
Later, when we stopped at a red light, I asked him, “Who are these union-wallahs?”
“The people who do politics,” he said.
“What about you, drivers?” I asked him. “Are you part of the union? Are you part of this decision to go on strike?”
He shook his head. It is well known that the drivers themselves are pawns in a bigger political game. There are apparently over 80,000 auto drivers in the city, and about 2,000 are union members. Do the maths.
I asked him about loss of earnings. He said: “We just have to do what they tell us. Otherwise they’ll throw stones at us, damage our autos.” Then he said something that really got me thinking: “What sense does it makes to go off the roads after 4 p.m.? It’s really inconvenient for commuters. That’s when people need to go home from offices.”
Gasp. Could it be that an auto driver actually cares and has a sense of responsibility towards the service he provides?
The thing is, we routinely vilify auto-rickshaw drivers as crooks and thieves, but there really is another side to the story. Like my driver today, most are poor, in many cases their family’s only breadwinner, and desperately trying to make a living in a system that really doesn’t work for them. Thus, the truth behind these strikes has remained the same.
Yes, the metered fares are unfairly low. Even most commuters will admit to that, especially given that CNG prices have gone up more than once ever since the last fare hike. One also needs to acknowledge that without autos, which ply in Delhi’s extreme climate (it was 5°C two months back and will be 45°C-plus in another three months), most of the city would be stranded. That said, however justified a fare hike is, it does not necessarily mean auto drivers will earn more—quite likely they’ll just have to pay higher rents to their contractors, who will continue to harass them and wield their power over them.