Fanning himself in the hot and humid afternoon, Ram Babu Gupta in grey uniform, which is now mandatory, fits the description of a stereotypical auto driver. His unkempt hair and white beard tell a tale of struggle and many seasons spent on the city roads, braving the weather and traffic snarls. And yet he continues to retain a positive outlook and manages to smile, something a person who has been through the grind and emerged triumphant can do.

“I have been driving an auto-rickshaw in Delhi for nearly 30 years now. But till date I do not have one of my own. I pay Rs.300 as rent for keeping this one with me for eight hours in a day,” said Ram Babu, as he went on to state what has kept him from buying one of his own.

“Apart from the rent, I also have to spend nearly Rs.150 per day on CNG. Due to the traffic in Delhi and increase in the number of autos, we are not able to make as many trips as we would like and the total earning is usually between Rs.700 and Rs.900 in a day. After deducting the costs, that just leaves me with about Rs.400 or Rs.500 per day. Moreover, we are allowed just two offs in a month and have to pay the full rent for other days when we absent ourselves.”

From the nearly Rs.10,000 that he makes a month, he spends Rs.8,000 on the education of his two sons.

A house of his own is the only saving grace for this resident of Jasola Vihar in South Delhi. “The only saving grace is that many years ago I constructed a house of my own and earn about Rs.10,000 per month in rent from it and this additional income allows us to meet our daily expenses.”

Ram Babu too would have applied for purchase of his own auto, but he lost his permanent licence a couple of years ago and the photocopy was lost during a painting job at home. “I now drive on a temporary licence but that would not entitle me to purchase of my own auto.”

Sunil Kumar of Laxmi Nagar has been more fortunate and is one of the thousands of auto drivers who have been able to purchase their own rickshaws, thanks to the changes in policy. In January this year, he finally bought his own auto-rickshaw which, he said “has allowed me an additional daily saving of Rs.300 a day which was going out in rent earlier”. As he lay resting in his auto outside the National Museum of Modern Art at India Gate, one could spot a sense of accomplishment on his face.

“Earlier I was involved in the embroidery business, but then the margins reduced and the competition increased, and five years ago I was forced to become an auto driver. This is a tough job – you have to brave the weather and everyone thinks you are a cheat. But that is not the case, believe me,” he said.

Kumar says the recent fare hike, which has increased the minimum fare from Rs.19 to Rs.25 and the per kilometre rate from Rs.6 to Rs.8, has had a salutary impact on the earnings of the auto-rickshaw drivers. “I support a family of six and it is really tough to do so while managing to earn just between Rs.10,000 to Rs.12,000 per month.”

But buying the auto, he said, has allowed him the freedom to do extra hours and also to take time off to be with the family without having to bother about paying the rent. “The auto cost me a little over Rs.2 lakh on road but it was worth every penny,” he says with a smile.

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