Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Autowalas in Ahmedabad

The Benevolent Autowala Strikes Again

Had some really nice experiences with autowalas in Ahmedabad. Autowalas in most Indian cities are like vampires – they will dig their teeth into you and drink your money until you run dry. Not so in Ahmedabad. Here is a blow by blow account.

1. Autowala Number One: I walked about of the railway station and was not mobbed. Demurely, one autowala approached me and asked where I wanted to go. I told him and asked him how much he would charge. He told me he would go by the meter. He also explained the metering system. Ahmedabad autos have a very strange variety of meter. I'm not sure I have figured them out.

Anyhow, it was drizzing lightly and he made me walk as far away from the station as he possibly could. Then he began to search for his auto in the long line of parked vehicles of the same make. Slowly he grew more and more bewildered. When it became unbearable to stand in the rain anymore, I asked him what had happened. In a disturbed voice he told me that his auto had disappeared.

2. Autowala Number Two: So I hailed another autowala who promised to take me to the VFS centre in about 30 rs. From the map I knew that the center was about 4-5 KM away (and it was) so the price seemed reasonable to me. When we reached the place, it turned out that I could not locate it. The autowala immediately took command and asked around. Some people guided us to a passport center nearby. There people told us the location of the visa center. The autowala finally dropped me there.

Needless to say, he had to do quite a bit of extra running around in all this. Yet, he charged me only 30 Rs. He told me he felt satisfied only if the customer got to the right place. I thanked him as he went away.

3. Autowala Number Four: Why am I leaving out the third one? Because his story is the most interesting. I will narrate that in the end. Autowala number four I hailed as I came out of Sabarmati Ashram and wanted to go to ISCON mall. This one also decided to charge me by the meter. As we moved towards our destination the rain became really heavy. Soon we encountered a patch of road which was difficult to tell apart from a river. The autowala stopped, wondering whether to go across or not. I asked him if there was an alternate route possible. He thought a little and turned the auto around. We went round and round for a long distance and then encountered another patch of road which was indistinguishable from an ocean. I gave up at this point and asked him to take me back to City Gold, a multiplex near Sabarmati Ashram. At this, the autowala became suddenly talkitive. He thanked me many times for asking to turn back, saying that if I'd persisted he would have attempted to cross that ocean and would most definitely have got stuck or washed away. Then he began narrating anecdotes about how vehicles get washed away in heavy rains. Then he thanked me again.

He charged me only 60 Rs for a really long distance. In any other city I would have lost at least a 100 for nothing.

4. Autowala Number Five: This one I hailed to go from City Gold to the railway station. Nothing special about this one except, when it came to pay I just asked him how much (he said 30) and paid him. He apparently took offense at it and insisted (in fluent gujrati) that I take a look at his meter before I left. Well, what could I do, I took a look. :)

5. Autowala Number Three: Now he is the only one who duped me and that too in such an innovative manner that the entertainment was probably worth the cost. I got into his auto after coming out of the VFS counter on Ashram Road and asked him to take me to 'Sabarmati Ashram'. He drove for a few minutes and then asked me if I wanted to go to 'Bapu's Ashram'. Obviously, I said yes. He drove, and drove and drove. I began to get suspicious as Sabarmati Ashram is supposed to be ON Ashram Road (hence the name). Anyhow, after a REALLY long journey, he deposited me at the gates of, guess where, 'Asaram “Bapu” Ashram' :P

At this point I didn't even know whether to laugh or to shout at him. I asked him to take me to the right place and grudgingly sat through a rattle of profound apologies as he pretended to be embarrased of the whole incident. He swindled off a 100 from me this way but, I guess, left me with a story to tell. :)

Overall I liked Ahmedabad. They write a script I can read and speak a language I can vaguely understand. The city is much cleaner than I'd expected and the autowalas don't try to fleece you. The little amound of local food I had was good too. The only thing I missed were those infamous Gujju chicks who are rumored to be drop dead gorgeous and take only 5 minutes max to be pataofied. Didn't even catch a glimpse of them.


  1. Maybe I'm trying too hard to see a dark cloud in the silver lining, but I think it is things like this that constitute Modi's (perhaps correct) claim of economics progress. Authoritarian politics always leads to a better rule of law, but whose law is the troubling question.

    In a free and just society I would expect autowallas to grumble and cheat and con travelers till they are authorised the kind of profit margins that cabbies in the West have.

    Incidentally, just curious, did you get any idea of the religious leanings of the autowalle?

  2. @ Shanth - I do not agree. In a free and just society I would expect autowalas to fight for a fair income through their public representatives in a democratic way instead of conning and cheating and harassing travelers.

    Also, I don't agree with a direct comparison between cabbies in the west. 1. You have to take purchasing power parity into account. 2. You have to take the buying capacity of the travelers into account. 3. I don't think cabbies in the west earn more because their society is freer or juster. It is just that they have a higher per capita income.

    I don't know what their religious leanings of these autowalas has anything to do with anything but if you ask me, my guess is that they were Hindus.

  3. @Vinod: I would disagree with your points 1 and 2.. Most people talk about PPP and other concerns to just talk away income disparities. But the average cabbie in the US/UK earns between $20,000 to $30,000 (see here & here) , while the Indian autowalla earns around Rs 2000 a month. The simplest way to compare this is by comparing it to the salaries of their clientele, whereas the cabbie in the West earns around a fourth of what a professional makes, this fraction is less than a twentieth for the Indian case. If you argue that you or I earn way more than the aam aadmi, then also remember that the aam aadmi doesn't ride in autos, we (or at least my parents) were exactly around the median income group that does ride in autos. Don't you think this is wrong?

    Regarding your point 3, perhaps you misunderstood me. At least in the US I can say from direct experience that politics/democracy is no more free or just here. When I said just in my earlier comment, perhaps I was unclear, I am not saying that the US or the West is that paragon of freedom and democracy that it claims to be. However, in terms of economic justice, and the sense of entitlement that people in the service sector have about what they deserve to be pain is greater. A plumber or a barber feels he deserves a certain standard of living and society acknowledges that. In India people feel they have the right to expect a barber, or a plumber or an autowalla to charge them what they do now. If he asks for more you think he's fleecing you.

    It is the self righteous feeling that an a autowalla is being dishonest or wrong when he charges you more than 50 for a certain journey that is wrong. This idea is somehow entrenched in our society that a place where the rule of law is stronger and the police stricter the autowallas do demand what they're allowed by the law, which is abysmally low.

    The middle class in India can certainly afford to pay their service sector more, they don't because of this warped sense of entitlement. This is in some sense, I think a remnant of the caste system's feeling of entitlement to goods/services .

  4. hehe, this reminds me of my experiences with autowalas in surat. Most of them very talkative, very happy, flashy decorative lights, loud music. I don't think I was charged an unfair amount. Auto rides were always a lot of fun.

    In fact, I noticed most people in gujarat actually looked happy and satisfied with their lives - very different from places like Kanpur.

  5. @ Shanth -- Again, I do not agree. There is nothing self-righteous about a customer demanding to pay the lawful amount for an auto journey. And this tendency is irrespective of country/nationality/class. Imagine going to some store in the US and the storekeeper demanding a premium of a dollar on some item. How would and average customer react? How would an average customer react if the cabbie in the US asked for more than the metered amount?

  6. @ Ankit - You experience reaffirms my notion that this behavior was peculiar of Gujarat and not some random chance.

  7. > There is nothing self-righteous
    > about > a customer demanding
    > to pay the lawful amount for an
    > auto journey.
    But there is a problem when the legal amount is abysmally low when compared to figures elsewhere in the world. The common auto rider like you or me can easily afford to pay more than what is the current "legal rate". The self righteousness is when people expect the legal limit to be so low.

    > And this tendency is irrespective of
    > country/nationality/class. How would
    > an average customer react if the
    > cabbie in the US asked for more than
    > the metered amount?
    The US customer would be outraged, but the the US customer is not outraged to know that the cabbie earns $20,000 annually. The disparity in incomes between blue collar and white collar jobs is much less than in India.
    To a certain extent the trouble in India is simply economics of supply and demand. With such a surplus workforce you do expect lesser skilled jobs to pay less, but I think it's more than that. People have an ingrained feeling that these jobs don't deserve more money. Most Indian students in the US will complain about the extortionate rates that barbers or plumbers etc charge here in the US. They make fun of it, but I think that it's our system that's wrong not the scale here.

    > Imagine going to some store in the US
    > and the storekeeper demanding a
    > premium of a dollar on some item. How
    > would and average customer react?
    Hehe on an aside, this point doesn't work because in the US storekeepers aren't regulated by MRP's. I was puzzled when I initially came here to find out that there are no MRPs here and stores can charge whatever they wish. They are taxed appropriately, but there's no limit. The US believes that a free market is the solution to everything. This is something that I think is stupid, and I don't support this blind faith in the free market model of the US. I think the Indian socialist system of government regulation on the price of commodities is sensible. Even for autos there needs to be a govt regulated price, I'm just saying the current one is too low.

  8. @ Shanth -

    1. I agree that what auto drivers earn is not enough. Hell, no one really earn enough in India. This has to improve. If someone thinks that autowalas should NOT earn more, then yes, that is self-righteous. And I don't think my post ever implied that autowalas should not earn more.

    2. I do not agree that autowalas should harass customers and ask for more than the metered amount. If they want to earn more, it should be done in a democratic manner (not necessarily lawful, cf. civil disobedience) through their public representatives. They should get some if they don't have any.

    3. There is nothing self-righteous about a customer demanding to pay the metered amount.

    4. I didn't know about the US retail pricing system. But I do think you got the point.

    5. Autowala economics are complex. One, there are just too many autos and very few riders. Many autowalas have to wait all day to get even a single customer. When that happens, they try (quite naturally) to charge them as much as possible. This is demand and supply. Second, this causes a vicious cycle. Customer thinks autowala cheats, so avoids auto, uses metered cab, personal vehicle instead. Results in further reduction of customers and more desperation in autowalas. Perhaps the vicious cycle has not set in, in Gujarat? Also, Intoxication is a HUGE social problem within that class. Being a dry state, perhaps Gujaratis (on an average) are able to live better even with that small amount, so don't trouble customers too much?

  9. Hmmm ... I guess I agree with you more or less, but the trouble is I guess that autowallas, like most people are disillusioned with democracy as a means to address problems in their daily lives. That does need to change.
    I personally do not think that I have any right to haggle with the autowalla over the 20-30 rupees that he certainly needs more than me, but it is wrong to force that value judgment on others I guess.

    Didn't know that Gujarat was dry. Actually, Modi's spectacularly good governance regarding everything except communal harmony scares me. It sadly makes the BJP more and more attractive.

    Strange how Bush gets away with really bad governance at home through violence abroad, and the BJP gets away with horrible violence at home through "good" government.