The disappointing autorickshaw cartels...

…and my decision to hold my own auto strike….

Chennai is somewhat famous for their autorickshaws, but not necessarily in a good way. The drivers here are notorious for overcharging for the shortest of rides, so, Amy and I have been doing some research into the situation. It has been a process that has been going on the entire time that we have been in Chennai and one that has been recently affected by a change in the price of petrol.

When Amy first moved into our apartment, she was paying the men at the auto stand near our house Rs. 20 for a ride to work. After doing this for a little while, she tried getting a ride from the street and found that Rs. 15 was the “normal price” and that it was usually quite easy to get an auto to take her at that rate. Still, the men at the auto stand, perhaps accustomed to the Rs. 20 that he had been paying all along, refused to budge on their price.

When I came in January, it was much the same for the first couple of weeks. Every morning, they would look at us cross the street in front of them, and just get into an auto passing by. Then one day, they started giving us daily rides for the street fare. The change seemed to accompany an event where one of the auto guys, Kumar, pulled up alongside Amy one day and said “Kothari Road! 15. Come!” Amy got in, and he proceeded to hand over his baby to Amy to hold while he zoomed through traffic. That seemed to break the ice, and all the auto arguments seemed to have disappeared.

In fact, because of their good nature about taking us every day, Amy and I were willing to pay a premium on all of our other trips. So, while we knew that Rs. 25 was enough to get me to my regular ride to the cafĂ©, I was happy to pay them Rs. 30 if they kept giving us our daily ride to work. And, for a long time, that’s how it worked.

Then came the elections, and following the elections came rises in the price of petrol. The price increase wasn’t that much, but it was enough that auto drivers around Chennai started using it as justification for their unreasonable requests. Following suit, the guys at the auto stand by our house started demanding Rs. 20 again. “Petrol, sir” they would all say over and over again, looking at us like they were sad about the state of things. Yet, we were still able to walk out to the street and pay the old Rs. 15 fare….

This warranted some official investigation, so enter my pal, Kali. Kali is an auto driver who hangs out outside the Taj—one of the most expensive hotels in Chennai. Those auto drivers typically pick up tourists at ridiculous rates and also take them to tourist shops which give the auto driver a commission for bringing in customers.

I’ve never given Kali any business, because he’s always in the part of town that I typically walk around instead of taking autos. But every time he sees me, he always insists on having a quick 10 minute chat about what’s going on, how I’m enjoying my work, and anything else that comes up. So, following the petrol increase, I decided to talk to Kali about the situation a bit.

So, what’s the price for petrol these days?” “Oh,” he says, “it used to be about Rs. 47 for a liter, but now its Rs. 52 plus Rs. 5 or Rs. 6 for oil.” “And how far can someone go on one liter?” “At least 20 Km if they take good care of their auto. Most of the times, about 22 to 25 Km in the city with all the stop and go….” “So,” I said, “the real question I have is if the petrol change was enough to really make the price from my house to my work go up from Rs. 15 to Rs. 20.” At this point, Kali looked at me and laughed. “No,” he said. “Your work is on the way in to the city. Most of the auto drivers are going that way anyway, so Rs. 15 is a very fair price. But, going home, you might have to pay Rs. 20—Chetput is not too popular so they can’t pick up customers to bring back all the time….”

Armed with Kali’s insider tips, a lot of my auto bargaining skills have gotten better, but the stubbornness of the auto drivers at the stand near my flat has just gotten to the point that it is too annoying to play their game any more. For my last month at this apartment, I’m more than happy to just cruise across the street near the smelly river and flag down an auto driver from there….

By the way, my frustration doesn’t extend to all the auto drivers at the stand by our house. Actually, there are a couple of guys—Mohammed and Shiva in particular—who are actually really nice and it has been hard to tell them no for rides. Unfortunately, this is also one of those cases where the few have spoiled it for everyone….

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