Have Chennai’s autorickshaws finally been forced to toe the line? The State Government recently came out with a new rate card, wherein the commuter has to pay Rs. 25 for the first 1.8 km and Rs.12 for every extra kilometre.
While the deadline for the new calibrated meters is October 15, the last day to get the new rate cards was September 15. It’s been four days since the checks for the cards and meters began. Metroplus finds out how much has changed
Change is here
“Sathyam theatre,” I said, hailing an auto opposite Central Station. “Hundred rupees,” said the driver. “Fifty,” I said and he drove away. Within seconds, another auto slowed down to ask me “Yenga sir”?
“Sathyam theatre, evalo?” “Meter sir”
There it was! The mythical auto meter, for real. Thrilled, I hop in. “How much did that auto ask,” the driver asks curiously. “Hundred,” I say. “It won’t be that much sir. Just yesterday I took this lady and she said she would pay only Rs. 60 from Ashok Nagar to Mambalam when I told her to pay by the meter. I said, ‘Please sit, and pay by the meter.’ In the end the meter rate came only to about Rs. 38. From now on, insist on the meter, sir,” he advises.
“Isn’t the last date to fix meters only October 15,” I ask. “Those who want to make an honest living won’t wait till then. I got it installed the day after the announcement came,” he says. I ask him if I can click photos and take a couple of quick pictures on my phone.
Nearing Sathyam, he asks: “What movie?” “Not movie. Interview. I am a journalist,” I say, as the auto stops in front of the theatre. The meter reads 57.40. I give him Rs. 60.
“Please wait,” he says, digging his pocket for change. “It’s okay,” I tell him.
“Neengale eppadi sollalaama? Pay only what the meter says,” he insists. He hands me two rupees and apologises that he is a rupee short. I forgot to ask him his name but I will always remember it: Change.
From across the city
I lost hope in autorickshaws long before I lost hope in my ability (or lack of it) to cook. I had to pay Rs. 40 once for a ride from the Light House to the Gandhi Statue, which is hardly a distance, and realised that taking an auto wasn’t worth the money or the time and energy spent haggling. Recently, though, after the meters were asked to be calibrated, I was curious to know how things had changed.
A friend, who regularly takes an auto from her home to work (barely 500 metres away), was asked to pay Rs.30 (Rs. 5 more than the minimum amount for 1.8 km) a couple of days back. My sister-in-law, too, slashed any hopes I had fostered. “I commute to my workplace at Teynampet from Nungambakkam everyday. The distance is around 4 km and I pay Rs.100 whereas the amount should be only Rs. 40 to Rs. 50,” she said, adding that meters in Chennai were a lost cause. A family friend, a chartered accountant, had a similar experience. He had taken an auto with a meter but was asked to pay extra over an above the fare as it was still cheaper than what he would have paid earlier.
Disheartened, I turned to Twitter, where, thankfully, I did find some success stories. Aarti Krishnakumar (@aaroo4) has been taking metered autos to work the last two days. “It has been such a breeze, and my wallet is smiling as well. I usually commute from T. Nagar to Tiruvanmiyur and it used to cost me Rs. 250, but thanks to the meter I have been paying only Rs. 120 and have managed to save a few hundreds in just three days. The auto-drivers have not haggled or hassled me. In fact, it only cost me Rs. 41 for a trip from T. Nagar to Park Sheraton and when I gave him Rs. 50, the auto driver gave me Rs.10 back and waived the Re.1 change,” she says. Amba (@MumbaiCentral) had also tweeted saying “First metered auto today, driver convinced me that it would be more expensive than my usual negotiated fare. Turned out 10 bucks cheaper.”
Taken for a ride
I leave my car behind in the interest of research. ‘Journey One’ is to a friend’s house, about four km away. However, the drivers at the auto stand down my road take it for granted that I’ll pay the ‘usual’ rates. “But what about the new meter law? I ask meekly. They look hurt. The oldest hobbles up to me like the star of a tragic art film. I can almost hear violins in the background as he sadly says, “Pay whatever you like.” Wracked by guilt, I get in and overpay. As usual.
With ‘Journey Two’, I’m determined to be tough. Unfortunately the odds are stacked against us. It’s 10 p.m. and we’re desperate for dinner. The restaurant we’re headed to is just 15 minutes away. But getting there looks like it’s going to be a challenge. The first two auto drivers we hail sullenly tell us to walk when we request meters. By the time the third one comes along, after a 20-minute wait on a dark road, we pay him whatever he wants: Rs. 100.
By the time I attempt ‘Journey Three’ I’ve almost given up hope. So I’m thrilled when the driver switches on his meter without being asked. Much to his amusement my friend and I excitedly take numerous pictures of it to post on Twitter. Net amount: Rs. 51. About 30 per cent less than what I normally pay for that distance. We hand him Rs. 60 and wait patiently for change. Long silence. Craning our necks to see why he’s taking so long with his wallet, we realise he’s SMSing on his phone. As for our change? What change?
Functional meters in Chennai are like mythical creatures. And when we pay according to one it feels like we are in Narnia.
Determined to pay the right amount we walk from one auto to another enquiring about their meters. A few auto drivers look disgusted at the mention of the M-word and send us away dismissively. Others say, “Meter inno readya illai…100 roobai thariya? That’s definitely excessive for the distance from Ampa Mall to the Nungambakkam Tennis Stadium.
Finally we discover a driver who agrees to charge us by the rate card. He animatedly waves it like a Japanese fan in our faces as we whizz off in his auto, suffused in incense. But we aren’t complaining. And as the gauge flickers to life, we clap in glee with a sense of achievement and click numerous pictures of the prima donna…that is the meter.
The best part is when we pull out our wallets and pay him two twenty rupee notes (Rs. 40 for 3.9 km) instead of having to part with a crisp note of hundred. As for our wallet, it squeals “Ka-ching!”
A Chennai first
As I flag an auto in the morning, I encounter something I haven’t for most of my adult life. A young auto driver named Mani offers to turn on the meter: no negotiations or demand. Seeing me surprised, he says, “We have to start somewhere, right?”
Throughout the journey from West Mambalam to Express Avenue, Mani speaks about how relieved he is about not having to negotiate anymore. He jokes that auto-drivers need counselling too. “It is difficult psychologically to accept fares far lower than what we would earn otherwise,” he says. Determined to follow the new regulations, Mani hopes that more people begin to use autos. There is also a strong resentment against share autos. “They are also unregulated.”
By the time I reach Express Avenue, the meter has clocked Rs. 74.50. Usually, I would have paid somewhere between Rs. 100 rupees and Rs.120. I hand him a 100 rupee note expecting to receive Rs. 20 in change. To my surprise, he returns Rs. 25.50. Again, something of a first for me in this city.