There is no avoiding the growing breed of black and yellow cabins on three wheels in the city

Monday morning. Rush hour. The autorickshaw stand at the Pattom junction looks rather empty. An autorickshaw driven by a middle-aged man stops as one stands by the roadside with an outstretched hand, the universal symbol to hail the ubiquitous three-wheelers. But the minute the destination, PMG Junction, is mentioned, the vehicle speeds away. Three more drivers refuse to go, with only one of them even taking the trouble to sign a ‘No’ with a shake of the head.

Luck comes riding in the fifth auto, as the burly driver gives a nod, though reluctance is writ large on his face. 

“These short trips are of no use to us. We hardly make any profits, even if we get relatively long trips regularly.  Short trips to interior roads are even worse, as no one is ready to pay the return charge,” says K. Vijayan, the driver, when prodded about the general aversion to short trips.

The city dwellers have a strange relationship with the auto drivers. They are the first to be depended upon, be it a quick dash to a meeting or an early morning ride to catch a train. But when it comes to complaining about travel within the city, the fingers first point towards them.  The reasons range from charging excessive fare to indecent behaviour.

“The tendency of a majority of the drivers is to ask for more money than the metre charge. Also, when women travel alone, they sometimes refuse to operate the metre. But yes, there are exceptions too,” says Gouri Krishna, a software engineer at Technopark.

The drivers, who are aware of such criticism, say their brethren here are much better compared to that in many other big cities.

“The extra money we ask for is mostly one or two rupees. In the past one year, how many times has the fuel price gone up? Has the minimum metre charge gone up along with that? There is no use driving an auto if we don’t make an average of Rs.500 every day. But that happens only 10 days a month,” says Satheesan, a driver at East Fort.

The auto drivers are also concerned about the public perception. “I occasionally work as a taxi driver. People tend to give more respect when I go in a taxi. The public thinks that all auto drivers are ill-mannered idiots. Even if we try to take them through a short cut, they think that we are trying to fool them. But, except a few, most among us are good intentioned. You know, there are even some college students who work as part-time drivers,” says Diwakaran, who has been riding an auto for the past three years, after his retirement from the State police.

A common problem shared by most of the auto drivers is the increasing number of autorickshaws running in the city, many of them from areas far from the city.

“Only 5,000 permits have been given for autorickshaws within the city. But the actual number is much above that. If you check the registration numbers of the rickshaws plying here, you can find that they belong to places such as Parassala, Neyyattinkara, and Attingal.  The RTO should take strict action to regulate their numbers. The increase in the number of personal vehicles in the past decade has also hit us hard,” says Balan, who is based at the auto stand at Statue Junction.

But, Saju, a driver at the Sreekaryam stand, begs to differ. He says that as the city has expanded, so has the profit pie available to everyone.

The situation is the same in every city, and Thiruvananthapuram is no exception. Try hating these rickety black and yellow cabins on three wheels. You may be able to. But try avoiding them. Chances are that you may not be able to. And they are growing in number as well.

The much-maligned three-wheeler population in the city is now about 60,000-strong, P. Mohanan, Assistant Commissioner, Traffic (South), says. However, nearly 20,000 of these are from outside the city, mostly from the suburbs and from Neyyattinkara, Attingal, and Nedumangad. A ‘headcount’ about six months ago had pegged the number of autos from the city at 34,000.

Pointing out that there are only 5,000 autos with permit to ply in the city, Mr. Mohanan says plans are afoot to join hands with the transport authorities to identify and issue identity cards and permits to auto drivers exclusively from the 100 wards of the city Corporation. Outstation autos will be allowed to drop passengers and leave the city limits, he said.

Members of the public who encounter drivers who misbehave with them or refuse to use fare meters or go on short-distance trips can contact the police immediately on 100 (Control Room), 1091 (women’s helpline), 1090 (crime stopper) and the Control Room Assistant Commissioner’s mobile number 94979 90004.  The numbers 1099 (Traffic Helpline), 94979 87001, 94979 87002, and 2558726 too are of the traffic police.