Akila Kannadasan and Anusha Parthasarathy hit the roads. This time on autos with working meters! And guess what, they return with some different tuk tuk tales…

My train home is at 5 p.m. It’s already 3 p.m. and I have a few things to be done before I leave. I seek the help of a friend who knows the city well.

With heavy luggage to lug around, we decide to go on a ‘meter auto adventure’. We have just one rule: to travel only in autos with a meter.

As we race against time, riding from one area to another, we not only drink in the sights and sounds of the city but also listen to the stories of our auto men, many of whom are refreshingly polite and genuine.

Auto 1: From Royapettah to Mylapore

We’re standing outside an ATM in Royapettah, trying to flag down an auto. We realise this is the wrong thing to do when the first guy that stops eyes the teller machine before giving us our answer. “I’ll come,” he says, tapping the meter. “But Rs. 10 over the meter.” We move on to Karunanidhi, who is ready to take us to Kapaleeswar temple for meter charge. We hop in and throw some questions at him, but it is only after five silent minutes that he says, “Meter is not profitable for long distances. Many drivers are selling their autos since they are unable to pay their dues. I know at least three people who have. But I agree, those who charge a lot need to be stopped and for that alone, meter is good.” One of us relates an experience where the auto driver charged Rs. 40 for a distance of barely one kilometre. He is amused and laughs. We are turning into North Mada Street when his sense of humour turns apocalyptic. “Autos won’t last very long,” he says, shaking his hand over his head to enunciate. “Soon, we will all be taking taxis only.” And with that thought, he drops us off just before the temple. The meter reads Rs. 28.60 and we pay Rs. 30. As we enter the temple, we mentally check the first item on our list.

Auto 2: Mylapore to Gandhi Nagar

We are momentarily distracted by Kalathy’s rose milk shop at the Chitrakulam junction, a store that has been selling this local favourite for over 80 years. Here we flag down another auto. Jeyachandran is a warm, talkative auto driver. After attesting to the quality of Kalathy’s brew (“Best rose milk in the city, madam”), he even teaches us what the buttons on the electronic meter are for. We’re heading to Gandhi Nagar to pick up some sweets and savouries from a popular family-run chain. “The rate at which I’m going, I don’t know whether to look after the auto or my home,” he sighs. He fishes out Rs. 60 from his pocket and tells us he has only made so much the whole day. “I’ve been driving autos for 30 years now and it is all I know. I do this to make my children study,” he adds. “Even if I miss a meal, I make sure they don’t. It’s been rather difficult of late.” But he is supportive of the meter rule, only adding that it perhaps came too late. “Those who demand more money should have their licence revoked. It’s because of them that people like me get a bad name,” he says as he stops in front of the shop. The meter reads Rs. 63.40 and ironically, he says, “Please give me what you feel is right.” We pay Rs. 70.

Last leg: Adyar to T.Nagar to Central

It’s 4 p.m. and we zip through Adyar. We need to stop by at Pondy Bazaar to buy something important. We check our watches every five minutes — will we make it? “If there’s no traffic, we will,” assures our auto driver. There’s something in his voice that suggests that he will ferry us on time.

He has two daughters and a son and came to Chennai 20 years ago. After stints at two other jobs, he decided to become an auto driver. Life was good; he took home a decent salary every day. “Now, I only make half of that,” he says. “I’m not against the meter system,” he adds quickly. “It’s just that this should have been done a long time ago. Autos should have been regulated from the beginning. That way we would’ve been used to a certain lifestyle and budget. But now, how can we manage if our earnings are cut almost by half? I cannot buy my family 25kg of rice every month instead of 50kg, can I?” He speaks of how share-autos are eating into their customer-base. “I wish they were regulated.”

We reach Pondy Bazaar by 4.15 p.m. — the meter reads Rs. 79. With less than 45 minutes left, we carry on in the same auto. Traffic threatens to peak as we trundle along Anna Salai. The weariness in our auto driver’s voice seems to have been replaced with an eagerness — to talk about the politics behind the meter-system. “There’s a deeper motive behind this,” he feels.

It’s 4.30 p.m. when we cross Simpsons — that’s when our auto driver talks about the lack of a proper distribution of wealth. “If our business is affected, it will in turn affect mechanics, spare-parts dealers, and other businesses that depend on us for a living.” The auto pulls over at Central just then — the meter reads Rs.165. We give him Rs. 200 and he takes not a rupee over the meter.

Our adventure comes to an end and we take back some interesting insights about auto drivers: Not all of them fleece; some of them are men of integrity. Perhaps, the days of haggling are over and the meter is here to stay?