Auto drivers can’t shake off their bad reputation

Known to overcharge customers, the drivers make a strong pitch for a fare revision committee

May 22, 2019 01:19 am | Updated 01:19 am IST - CHENNAI

“Enga sar poganum?” (Where do you want to go?) — the first words that visitors to the city hear from auto drivers at stations and bus stands. And, if the visitors don’t bargain hard and fix the fare, they risk being taken for a ride (figuratively, in this case), having to fork out a few hundred rupees even for a small distance.

Chennai’s autorickshaw drivers are known to overcharge customers. While autorickshaw unions agree that their members do resort to overcharging, they call for a committee to revise fares as and when fuel prices fluctuate and the introduction of GPS-enabled meters, as promised by the government more than six years ago.

“On Sunday morning, I arrived at Chennai Central from Hyderabad. I was supposed to go to Mylapore and autorickshaw drivers surrounded me, offering rides for anywhere between ₹300 and ₹500. I politely walked away and took an app-based autorickshaw. I paid only ₹100,” said K. Gangadharan, a resident of Bazaar Road, Mylapore.

Autorickshaw fares were revised in 2013, after a gap of six years, based on the Supreme Court’s direction to the State government to fix new auto fares. The fare for the first 1.8 km is ₹25 and ₹12 is charged for every additional km. Late night charges are 50% higher than the normal fare.

“Autorickshaw fares are supposed to be revised every two years. To do this, we have been asking the government to form a committee comprising consumer associations, Transport Department officials and autorickshaw unions. There has been no move to even form one,” said S. Balasubrmaniam, working president, Tamil Nadu Autorickshaw Drivers’ Federation.

M.S. Rajendran, a member of the federation, said the fares should not just be based on fuel prices, but also on the cost of living. “Fuel prices keep fluctuating, but interest rates on loans, cost of groceries and rent keep escalating. So a committee should be formed to discuss and change the fares accordingly,” he suggested.

K.K. Divakaran, general secretary, All India Road Transport Workers’ Federation, said in some States, such committees were formed when needed. “In Kerala, the Justice Ramachandran Committee was formed 10 years ago and petitions to revise fares for autorickshaws, buses and taxis are forwarded to this body,” he said.

He added that fares were decided not just on the basis of fuel prices. “When the cost of petrol/diesel escalates, the rates for spare parts and the cost of living also increase. Hence, all these factors are taken into consideration. In Tamil Nadu, it would be better if such a body is formed as autorickshaws are an important mode of transport,” he remarked.

Meanwhile, Transport Department officials said a committee will be formed when the need to revise the fares arises. “One such committee was formed when autorickshaw fares were revised in 2013,” said an official.

Officials claim that action is being taken against autorickshaw drivers who fleece passengers. “We get at least 25 calls per day on our toll-free helpline 1800-4255430. However, most of them don’t even provide the vehicle number. Hence, taking action becomes difficult. However, if all details are provided, we suspend the licence,” said a senior official of the Transport Department.

Need of the hour

In 2013, when autorickshaw fares were revised, the then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa also announced that the State government would spend ₹80 crore on installing meters fitted with GPS and digital printers. The meters would also have provision for a panic button, which the passengers could press in case of an emergency and the police would immediately come to the rescue of the commuter.

A year ago, the Transport Department started trials by fixing the GPS-equipped meters on 20 autorickshaws. The meter has a panic button, a screen that displays the start and end of a trip, and a printer to provide a bill to the passengers. A control room was also setup at the RTO office on New Avadi Road.

Those monitoring the vehicles in the control room are able to see the autos turning violet when the GPS is on. When switched off, the speck turns black. And, when the panic button is pressed, it turns red.

“After this, there has been no development. The government said it had allocated ₹80 crore for the equipment, but there is no clarity on what it did with the money,” said A.L. Manoharan, State president, Auto Thozhilalar Sangam, North Chennai.

Commuters feel fleecing may reduce if the GPS-fitted meters are introduced. “Compared to call taxis, autorickshaws are safer. However, many don’t opt for it as they fleece passengers. Even app-based autorickshaws cannot be relied upon, as they don’t serve many areas in the suburbs,” said M. Uma Maheshwari, a resident of Adyar.

S. Babu, an autorickshaw driver, said in 2016, many autorickshaw unions had raised a demand for GPS meters to be provided. “However, after Jayalalithaa died, it was forgotten,” he said.

R. Revathy, a commuter, said though some drivers agreed to turn on the meters, she felt they had been tampered with. “The equipment throws up exorbitant rates,” she added.

Losing passengers

Auto drivers said they were losing passengers to app-based autorickshaws. “Even their charge escalates if it is peak hour. If the government provides GPS meters, our charges will be uniform and will not change several times a day like what happens in app-based services,” said K. Siva, an autorickshaw driver from Chintadripet. Meanwhile, Transport Department officials said GPS-fitted meters were on hold due to a case in the High Court.

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