Within 20 days of the autorickshaw fare revision, petrol prices soared twice, making the fuel dearer by over Rs. 5 a litre. Yet it did not spark a widespread protest by auto drivers.
The reasons were not too far to seek – apart from the government conveying through action its keenness to rein in erring drivers, it was Auto LPG that made the difference.
For long hard-sold for its eco-friendly qualities, the cost advantage that LPG offered became significant only after petrol prices kept shooting up. While officials of the transport department say that as many as 41,900 of the 72,679 autorickshaws in the city run on LPG, the unions representing the owners/drivers of the vehicles dispute this.
J. Seshasayanam, State secretary of Madras Metro Auto Drivers’ Association says this number has come down in recent years. “There are only around 25,000 autos that run on LPG now, mainly because there are very few LPG bunks, and the majority of them are around areas such as Tambaram, Ambattur, Koyembedu and Padi.
Sources in the oil industry say there are a total of 37 Auto LPG Dispensing Stations (ALDS), including seven set up by private firms such as Reliance and Total. The average sale of an ALDS is around 60 tonnes a month.
Behind this contention is the possibility of thousands of autorickshaw giving up on LPG on account of various reasons, primarily the distance they need to travel and the time spent on getting the tank filled. More importantly, running on the eco-friendly fuel would also make their demand for higher fares crumble as at current prices, LPG is significantly cheaper.
According to Senthil Kumar, an autorickshaw driver in Kilpauk, there is at least 40 per cent increase in their income when using LPG. “LPG gives more mileage. Also, a litre of LPG costs Rs. 50, and with oil it comes to Rs. 58. Whereas for petrol and oil, one has to spend at least Rs. 85,” he says.
But the reservations of drivers cannot be completely dismissed. To start with, the biggest hurdle for them in switching over to LPG completely is the cost involved in retrofitting (for petrol vehicles) and the limited number of ALDS. “Those in the city lose out on sawaari because there is at least an hour spent on waiting at the bunk,” Mr. Seshasayanam says.
The State government, in 2007, made LPG kits mandatory for autorickshaws to get new permits. Subsidies were also given to convert from petrol to LPG, but many such as R. Santhosh Kumar have thrown away their kits and switched back to petrol. “The speed and pickup is more with petrol, and there is no waiting time at bunks,” he said.
One of the ALDS private players is Indian Oil Petronas Pvt. Ltd., a joint venture of Indian Oil Corporation and the Malaysian government-owned Petronas. “We have two outlets, one each in East Tambaram and on Anna Salai, Nandanam. Together, they sell around 300 tonnes a month,” an official of IPPL says, adding that it was the location on arterial Anna Salai that made the difference.
Location, officials of public sector oil companies agree, is crucial to the success of the outlet. Given that one outlet can do much is also an indication of the potential that others can do as the demand over a period of time also gets redistributed to various locations.
On the issue of limited outlets, officials say the biggest constraint is availability of land in prime areas and the stringent safety norms. Beyond a point, the cost of the land makes the outlet unviable.
For autorickshaw passengers and drivers, what matters are solutions that help save money on travel/trips. L. Rafi, a driver from Nanganallur says he has to go all the way to Saidapet or Alandur to fill gas, and has to wait for at least 90 minutes every day. “My auto has the facility to use both LPG and petrol alternatively but the capacity for petrol is just about 2 litres, and the mileage is hit badly if we use both fuels. So I have decided to stick with LPG for now.”