'City Pulse' keeps tabs on what Chennai's citizens think about issues that affect their everyday life.

The Madras High Court's direction to the State government on Monday to spell out the measures it proposed to regulate autorickshaw fares has once again turned the spotlight on an issue that concerns hundreds of people dependent on autorickshaws for their daily commute.

The problem dates back to 1996 when the government announced a freeze on the issue of autorickshaw permits in the city. Since a few financiers controlled the limited available permits and autorickshaw drivers had to pay a daily rental of Rs.200 to the owner, the fare meter system started to vanish.

There have been a number of PILs subsequently, but the issue remains unaddressed. Arguing with an autorickshaw driver over the right fare continues to be an unpleasant reality for many commuters.

P.Vijaya, a resident of K.K. Nagar, starts her morning most days squabbling with an autorickshaw driver. She depends on autorickshaws to travel to her office in Egmore, as the only bus route (17 D) is often crowded.

“They demand up to Rs.200 to Egmore. That is almost double the normal fare,” she says.

The plight of suburban residents is worse as autorickshaws are the only available mode of transport in some areas. B.Varadarajan, a resident of Maduravoyal, says “They demand a minimum of Rs.50 to operate for two km distance to localities such as Metro Nagar and Krishna Nagar.”

The existing autorickshaw fare system, in force from January 2007, is a minimum of Rs.14 for the first two km and Rs.6 for every additional km. But no one follows the system.

J. Seshasayanam, general secretary of Madras Metro Auto Drivers Association, says drivers want to use the meter but only if there is a fresh revision of the fare structure. “Between 1996 and 2007, the fare system was not revised. The fare structure became uneconomical and everyone got used to bargaining. Nobody trusts the meter because of tampering. A minimum fare of Rs.20 for the first two kms and Rs.10 for every subsequent km is our demand.”

However, a senior Transport Department official said that Chennai's existing fare system is comparable to Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka and the tariff rates are higher than in Kerala and Puducherry. “The fine amount for not using the meter or for tampering is only Rs.100. More punitive measures are needed,” he added.

Because of the uncertainty over the fare that has to be paid, the use of autorickshaws has actually declined over the years. According to the Comprehensive Traffic and Transportation Study done by the CMDA, while autorickshaws accounted for five per cent of the trips in the city in 1992, this had come down to four per cent by 2008.

This has implications for the modal share of public transport such as buses and the metro.

Autorickshaws act as feeders and facilitate door-to-door service that would otherwise be available only with personal vehicles.

Soon after the ban on autorickshaw permits was lifted in May, the Transport Department had evolved a roadmap for effective enforcement of autorickshaw fares in the city.

The roadmap suggested a shift to a system of fare meters that show the distance travelled in kilometres and the time taken to reach the distance, instead of the actual fare.

The fare can be calculated by the commuter using a ‘tariff card' that will be affixed on every vehicle and distributed in important places. The department's website will also provide the information. The proposal remains in cold storage.

A permanent committee to fix fare revision within three days from the date of a fuel price hike and a mobile fare meter testing unit were part of the recommendations.

Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect, an NGO working on issues concerning the city's transportation, says that the government should get out of fixing fares.

“For too long, we have assumed that govt will magically set prices and make things happen. The boom in the call taxi market offers lessons. Companies and cooperatives need to emerge.”

What they say

S.Purushothaman, coordinator of the 117 tourist-friendly autorickshaws in the city, says

The permit system has been liberalised after 15 years. Now, every driver can be an owner. Since 50 per cent of the vehicles in the city use LPG, fuel price hike does not make a huge impact. Autorickshaw bays need to be developed where commuters can wait for vehicles which use the meter. It is a great opportunity to rationalise fares after a long time.

K.N.Nehru, Transport Minister says

The autorickshaw permit system was liberalised with the view that demand and supply logic will stabilise fares. Permits have been issued for 12,000 new autorickshaws in the city. Anna University is currently doing a study on autorickshaw fares and the current fare structure will be revised shortly. A dedicated helpline for grievances is also being looked into.

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