Share autorickshaws fill a void and have come to stay, but they flout rules and pose danger to road users

As the clock strikes nine in the morning, M.Mahalakshmi of Kalavasal gets jittery. It is time for her husband to leave home for office on his motorcycle. She is worried about his safety on the city roads. “People assume that only those in the Armed Forces risk their lives day in and day out. But with increasing road traffic, unruly drivers with disorderly driving patterns and complete chaos on the roads, even civilians like us run the risk of shedding blood in the course of our routine work,” she says.

Many other Madurai residents share a similar view. “Procedures are in place. There is no dearth of traffic rules and regulations. But the way they are flouted is a matter of concern,” says G.Ganesan of Iyer Bungalow.

And the main culprit, many say, is share autorickshaw. Share auto, a term referring to all big autorickshaws running on diesel, is a classic example of how a menace becomes difficult to be ended owing to a spurt in numbers and the patronage it receives from the public.

According to N.Ravichandran, Regional Transport Officer (Madurai North), the term share auto was once used for wide-bodied three-wheelers that resembled mini goods vehicles painted in black and yellow. They were allowed to carry five passengers apart from the driver.

The Transport Department permitted their use about a decade ago as government buses and private mini buses could not serve several interior areas. Later the department stopped granting permits to share autos as they were found to be more of a bane than a boon.

Most of those share autos are not in existence any more. But the term has been hijacked by diesel autos which carry nine to 10 passengers, though as per transport permit they can carry only three passengers apart from the driver.

Ten passengers

The size of diesel autos, which are slightly bigger than the conventional vehicles that run on petrol, comes in handy for their owners to make minor modifications to accommodate up to 10 passengers, besides two more on either side of the driver.

These autos ply on different routes and make several trips a day. Passengers get in and out of the vehicles at the places of their choice and pay a nominal amount of Rs.10 per head.

“These overcrowded autos are one of the main reasons for the city’s traffic problems. They occupy most of the carriage space at bus stops and force the buses to halt in the middle of the roads. They are also driven rashly and stopped at will without the drivers giving any signal,” says Mr.Ganesan.

K.Kalyanakumar, RTO (Madurai Central), says: “We impound such autos regularly and impose heavy fines on the owners. But the irony remains that these people pay the fine amounts, take back the vehicles and continue the same practice.”

He also points out that drivers of the diesel autos have formed an association, Madurai District Integrated Ape Auto Drivers Welfare Association, to protest against action initiated by the Transport Department.

Association president R.P.Chandra Bose wants the officials to permit his association members to carry at least six passengers, otherwise they may not be able to make any profit. Since these autos provide employment to many, it is high time they were recognised, he adds.

Since the move to set things right by punishing the erring auto drivers did not evoke the desired response, the Transport Department conducted a drive in February to sensitise the passengers by prominently painting the number of permitted capacity on the vehicles itself. But that too did not yield any result.

S.Selvakumar, a resident of Munichalai, says increased patronage for diesel autos was due to the failure of the Tamil Nadu State Transport Corporation (TNSTC) to ply adequate number of buses. “People do not have the patience to wait at bus stops for hours together to catch the bus,” he adds.

However, S.Sampath, joint general secretary, TNSTC Staff Federation, has a different take on it. He points out that people prefer diesel autos even on routes with frequent bus services because of the flexibility factor. “Passengers have to necessarily walk to a bus stop to board a bus. They also get dropped only at a bus stops, whereas share autos could be stopped at any place and one can get dropped at any point en route,” he adds.

D.Thothathri, Deputy Manager (Commercial), TNSTC, says his department has been doing things within its might to meet the public demand. He points out that it is even running special buses exclusively for educational institutions such as Fatima College.

Works out cheaper

According to TNSTC sources, 670 buses, including 320 low-floor buses, are being operated in the city limits and 130 in the suburban areas. While the minimum fare in the ordinary service is Rs.4, it is Rs.5 in express service and Rs.7 in low-floor buses.

“If the government is going to fix the charge at Rs.7 for travelling as short a distance as one kilometre, people will naturally shun buses and prefer share autos since it works out cheaper for travelling longer distances,” the sources say.

“What we see today is that share auto drivers and passengers have jointly created a new kind of transport system that does not find place in the statute books. It is a system created out of necessity. It can only be regulated, not eradicated,” opines lawyer S.Muthukumar.

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