Auto rickshaws for the people

March 16th, 20112:54 pm @


On the lookout for a fare - an auto rickshaw in Delhi.

 

Anyone who has spent time in India will likely have dealt with the country’s auto rickshaws. They’re the lifeblood of every Indian town’s transport system, the buzzing little three-wheelers that carry everything from school kids to schools of, err, kids – yes, I’ve seen a rickshaw full of young goats.

While they’re a convenient – albeit noisy and polluted – way to get around, the process is never straightforward. Although that’s just par for the course in India.

The first problem is getting them to use the meter (unless you’re in Bombay, where they turn it on automatically). You’ll encounter various reasons as to why the meter can’t be used: it’s broken, it’s raining, it’s night-time or – my favourite – it’s daytime. How I deal with it usually depends on where I am and the mood I’m in. If I’m near any sort of uniformed official I’ll suggest to the rickshaw driver that the two of us go and talk to the officer about his refusal to use the meter. This once resulted in a rickshaw driver saying to me: “Oh, meeeeter – yes,” as though I’d originally asked him to turn on the fasten seatbelts sign.

Often, however, you’re on your own with no help from the constabulary. Pulling out your phone, photographing their licence plate and telling them you’ll report them to the police can work. It can also cause a fight, so use with caution.

Eventually, however, you’ll need to negotiate. If a Delhi rickshaw driver gets even a hint that you’re new in town you’ll be quoted an extortionate price. I was once quoted 300 rupees from Connaught Place to Khan Market – a trip that costs 35 rupees. Negotiating is easier when there’s a few rickshaws around and you can play one off against the other. I did try explaining the economic theory of supply and demand to a rickshaw driver once – pointing out that with six rickshaws and one passenger, he wasn’t really in a position to dictate the price. However, without Niall Ferguson’s deft touch at economics and presenting, my lesson wasn’t very well received.

Another tactic is to simply jump in, say where you’re going and ignore the topic of price completely. When you arrive just hand over the fare and walk away – they’ll complain, but usually won’t make too much of a fuss if the fare is about right. If they make no fuss at all you probably gave them way too much. This only really works if you (a) know the correct fare and (b) have the right money. Getting change from a rickshaw driver is difficult enough, getting him to find some when you’re trying to negotiate is fighting a losing battle.

In these instances my wife says that calling them a “cheat” often helps as they seem to take this to heart and are genuinely offended. It’s probably a better approach than the one I take, which is to suggest – in Hindi – an inappropriately close relationship between the driver and his female siblings.

While it’s easy to get caught up in the haggling, the arguing and the name-calling, it’s equally easy to forget that it’s a pretty crappy life for a rickshaw driver. There are countless fines from the police for the most minor of transgressions, their licence costs a small fortune and they often barely make ends meet. And it’s not as though every single rickshaw driver is a thief intent on fleecing you of all your hard-earned. They can be useful for a quick lesson in Hindi, a good story or just general entertainment.

Coming home from work one night, and with a bad* case of man flu on the way, I got a very talkative Sikh rickshaw driver, who grilled me on my life in India. I could barely concentrate on keeping upright, let alone answer his questions. When he realised I was poorly he stopped asking questions and instead broke into song – keeping me entertained, and not thinking about my man flu – for the whole ride.

*Is there any other variety of man flu?

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