Velukutty sits in his white Ambassador, eyes half-closed, one leg on the seat, and one hand on the wheel, at the Kesavadasapuram taxi stand on Monday afternoon. He flashes an almost toothless grin when asked about the number of trips he has done on the day.

“The first six days of this New Year, I have done only one trip, that too, a short one within the city. Who would want to travel in an Ambassador now, with all these fancy cars around? Fortunately, I don’t have a family to feed,” he says.

Velukutty is one of the oldest drivers at this stand, and has witnessed the stand being shifted at least five times in the past few decades.

Taxi stands moved

“We are the ones who are shifted whenever they expand the road or inaugurate a new building. But, this place we treat as our own now. We planted these seven trees, and it has now become useful to the public too,” says Mohanan, who has been a taxi driver for 34 years.

The returns began dwindling in the past decade, with the arrival of call taxi firms that offered the customers a variety of cars. People began opting for the new automobiles on the block, equipped with GPS systems and video screens.

The old taxi drivers tried to tackle the challenge in their own small ways. “We formed an independent union, Swathanthra Taxi Drivers Association, with a strict code of conduct for the drivers.

“If any of the 28 drivers are found drunk on duty, we suspend them for service, and they are fined Rs.500. If a customer has a complaint against a taxi driver, we take appropriate action. This way we can gain the customers’ trust and hope they would return,” says Ravi, treasurer of the association.

The regular customers are the ones who keep them going. Now, there is no need to walk to a taxi stand to hail a cab. The drivers share their mobile numbers with their customers. Ask them if they want to work for a travel agency and you get a resounding ‘no’ for an answer. These fiercely independent taxi drivers prefer to be their own bosses.

Making ends meet

“Some of us survive with small ‘side businesses’ such as real estate dealings. It is hard to attract customers as we do not have advertisements,” says taxi driver Jayan.

Another challenge they face is from cars without permit who ‘steal’ their business.

In the majority of taxi stands that The Hindu visited, the drivers recounted tiffs with the drivers of the permit-less cars, which sport the normal white number plate instead of the standard taxi yellow.

“We pay over Rs.20,000 annually on insurance and permit, while these drivers pay only a few thousands. They park near our stand to eat into our profits. People prefer these cars as the white number plates make it look like their own car,” says Mr. Jayan.

Travel agencies

They say many travel agencies prefer the permit-less drivers to save money.

“Most travel agencies claim they have a huge fleet, but they actually own only a few cars. The rest, they sub contract to people from outside or rent out cars from private parties. I bought my present car second-hand from a private party who had earlier rented it out to a travel agency. He ended up in debt as the responsibility to maintain the car was with him,” says Mr. Mohanan.

The government collects Rs.1,200 annually from them as part of a welfare fund, but nobody knows anyone who has availed himself of any benefit.

“The welfare fund is apparently for retired taxi drivers. But, what is retirement for us? We just keep on driving till our sight permits us,” says Mr. Velukutty.

At the Kesavdasapuram taxi stand, the 28 drivers are getting ready for the next shift, to make way for the monorail.

“All the trees that we planted will also go. We will hopefully get another plot,” they say.