Half of Delhi’s transport problem is that it can’t sort out its autowallahs

Down with the auto mafia.
Down with the auto mafia.
Image: Reuters/Pawel Kopczynski
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Delhi has a severe public transportation problem, and the state government’s latest experimental idea is bound to result in chaos for everyone.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in a bid to control air pollution, wants odd and even number cars to ply on alternate days from Jan. 1. But such a move will add more pressure on a public transportation system that is already bursting at the seams.

This isn’t the first time Delhi is panicking over air pollution. A similar Armageddon scenario loomed large in the late nineties, forcing the Supreme Court in 2001 to ban public transport vehicles from running on petrol or diesel, and mandating their conversion to CNG (compressed natural gas). This reduced pollution in Delhi, but also took many buses off the roads—and they haven’t returned. Today, while the Arvind Kejriwal-led government wants to add 10,000 buses, it can’t find land for bus depots.

The Delhi Metro, which began operations in 2003 and continues expanding, has been a blessing: It has taken away at least two million passengers a day from the roads. But, given that there is always a stampede brewing in the metros during peak hours, they won’t be able to handle the additional load of passengers. It will take another 12 months before its long new lines—Pink and Magenta—over the inner and outer ring roads will begin to cover most parts of the city. Even so, if the nearest metro station for you is two kilometres away, as it is for me, you may not think of it as your first transport option. There’s the problem of the “last mile connectivity” the Delhi government is unable to solve.

Expensive taxis—Uber and Ola cabs are always “surging” now that they have captured the market—are clearly not an everyday option for many.

In such a scenario, there is an obvious option that is small, affordable, and relatively less polluting than diesel and petrol vehicles—CNG-propelled three-wheeled auto-rickshaws.

Except that hailing an auto-rickshaw is a pain in Delhi, an exercise undertaken only by the battle-hardened. Firstly, you may not find an auto at all. You may have to wait for as long as 15 minutes in some parts of Delhi to see an empty auto-rickshaw. Autowallahs will ask you where you want to go, and if they don’t want to go in that direction, they won’t say no to you. They will look away and keep driving, as though they never started a conversation with you. If they are interested in taking you to your destination, a prolonged bargain will ensue. If they, by miracle, agree to ply by the meter, they will take you by the longest possible route. There is nothing but bitterness that comes out of dealing with Delhi’s autowallahs. On average, you are likely to pay 50% more than the meter rate. This forces Delhites to buy a car, if they can afford one, adding to Delhi’s congestion and pollution.

Are autowallahs bad people? No, it’s bad regulation that makes life difficult for both the autowallahs and the auto commuters.

The auto mafia

To make a living driving auto-rickshaws in Delhi, you need three different government permits. You need a commercial license meant especially for plying autos, then a “badge”, and then a “permit” for the vehicle itself. Back in 1997, to control pollution from diesel-run autos, the Supreme Court banned issuing of new auto “permits.”

Even after full conversion to CNG, that Supreme Court order stays. Instead of asking the court to recall its order, the state government goes to court every now and then, asking for permission to issue another few thousand auto permits, then distributing them as patronage.

This has resulted in an artificial scarcity of autos in Delhi. The demand-supply gap has created a lucrative economy of auto permits, which are hoarded by the auto mafia. This auto mafia rents out autos, the current price being Rs450 for 12 hours. A new auto costs around Rs1.5 lakh, but the “permit” in the black market costs upwards of Rs4 lakh. (In 2010, Simon Harding of the AMAN Trust researched the auto economy of Delhi, and explained the severe financial pressure under which autowallahs drive across the city, thanks to a distorted market.)

When the Supreme Court permitted 100,000 new auto permits in 2011, the price of the permit in the black market fell by two-thirds.

India liberalised its economy in 1991, doing away with the license-quota raj for industries. Yet, in 2015, the Delhi government still decides how many autos Delhi needs, not trusting the market. Socialism for the poor, capitalism for the rich. For a capital city of 17 million people, and many more coming in from the National Capital Region and visitors from across the city and the world, the Delhi government’s website says there are only 74,000 auto permits (pdf) in Delhi. Many estimate that another 75,000 or so must be plying illegally.

According to the Delhi government’s registration data, the city added 830,000 new cars between April 2007 and September 2012. In the same period, the number of auto-rickshaws it added was only 22.

What has AAP done for autowallahs

In 2010, the Congress party’s chief minister Sheila Dikshit said she wanted to get Delhi rid of these uncouth autowallahs for the Commonwealth Games. The Congress government’s confrontational attitude towards autowallahs was exploited by the fledgling AAP. The Kejriwal-led AAP promised autowallahs to solve all their problems, and in return, used them as a campaign army for elections. After coming to power, the party has made life a lot easier for them, permitting them to legally refuse passengers, and making sure they don’t have to face requests for bribes from the Delhi transport department or the traffic police.

That’s great, but it hasn’t made life easier for the aam aadmi, or the common man who still dreads hailing an auto.

Win elections, damn the commuter

Some months before the AAP came to power, the Dikshit government approached the Supreme Court to remove the cap on auto permits, but it is not clear where the application stands. When the AAP first came to power in 2013, it issued 15,000 new auto permits. Around that time, I visited the then Delhi transport minister Saurabh Bharadwaj. He agreed with me that there was a great shortage of autos in Delhi. However, he hinted why it won’t be easy for his government to get auto-rickshaw permits de-regulated from the Supreme Court. Existing autowallahs might complain they have fewer passengers now, he said.

When Kejriwal’s 49-day government went out of power, the Delhi government, run by Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung, asked the Supreme Court for another 200,000 auto permits. It quoted these statistics: “Delhi had the lowest population-to-autorickshaw ratio among metros as there were only 100,000 three-wheelers to meet the demands of 16.3 million people. In comparison, Mumbai had a population of 18.4 million with 246,000 autorickshaws. Bengaluru had the best ratio with 151,000 auto-rickshaws for 8.5 million people.”

But the AAP government fears that if they don’t support this quota raj, they will lose a significant chunk of their supporters. In the process, it is wittingly or unwittingly helping the auto mafia thrive.

As someone who prefers using public transport in Delhi, I find that the government’s transport policy is only forcing me to get a car. Except that, with the odd-even number plate rule, I’ll need two cars. The Delhi government wants to ban Uber and Ola, can’t make new buses turn up overnight, won’t issue new auto licenses, and now wants to ban half the cars. Kejriwal’s transport policy is best described by the Bollywood phrase liquid oxygen: the liquid won’t let you live and the oxygen won’t let you die.

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