Yesterday, August 12th, a group of Mumbai citizens organised a public strike against rickshaws. Fed up with rickshaw drivers picking and choosing where they want to go, tampering with their meters, and generally behaving badly, this group promoted a ‘no rickshaw day’ to encourage citizens to show rickshaws that we can live without them.
I think this is a wonderful effort. I think it’s amazing to see a group of regular people standing up for something, and generating enough media attention to make something happen. I believe their website had 30-40,000 registrations.
Sadly, the effort was doomed to fail. On it’s own, it will have zero impact. Possibly the public fuss might encourage politicians to look into the matter, and in reality that’s the only hope of success for this day.
All the problems that people have with rickshaw and taxi drivers stem from a common, and simple problem. There is a massive undersupply of public transport on the roads. There are huge numbers of people looking to use rickshaws, and not very many rickshaws available.
Each day when i travel to or from work, for every 10 people waiting, there might be one rickshaw. It is only natural that the driver will look for the most profitable fare. The same way a popular nightclub can pick and choose who comes in, and a popular designer can pick and choose their clients. Ordering drivers that they have to take the first passenger is easy to say and morally correct but hard to implement. After a rash of police efforts to stop them refusing passengers, the drivers now leave their meter in break down position so they can reject passengers without being fined.
Now – triple the number of rickshaws. Instead of picking from 10 passengers, they now pick from three. After hearing one fare, what if the next two are worse? The driver is far more likely to take the first passenger as he may not get anything better.
Similarly, if I am in a rickshaw and i notice that the meter is running fast, what can i do? In protest i can get out, and then stand on the road trying to find another way home. Is that really worthwhile to save a few rupees? Not really, so we put up with it and complain later. Instead imagine if we could get off the rickshaw and easily find another one. Enough people would do just that and the driver would end up getting the meter fixed to stop losing long fares.
The same, with rude, aggressive drivers, or those who drive dangerously. With the choice to get down and take another rickshaw, passenger action would push the drivers to behave in a more passenger friendly manner.
Providing a huge increase in the numbers of rickshaws, taxis, and the modern AC fleet taxis, would go a long way to solving the transport problems that Mumbaikars face daily. If it is so easy, why doesn’t it happen?
I can’t provide a perfect answer to this but as far as I know:
Firstly, it is difficult to get a permit to drive a rickshaw. I believe the requirement is that you must be resident in Mumbai for 15 years. A requirement like this is part of the absurd anti-migrant push by political parties to stop people from other parts of India coming to Mumbai to work. If there are not enough locals to drive rickshaws, then it should be opened up to whoever wants to. Some knowledge of the city would be beneficial, so maybe a 5 year residence requirement would work? But even then, 5 years as a security guard isn’t going to teach you how to get around the city. Better a 3-5 day training course to show the major roads and landmarks.
Secondly, the drivers unions would strongly resist this, as they are quite happy with the current scenario. When Mumbai airport allowed the new up market taxi companies (such as Meru Cabs, or the specialist female taxi providers) to offer taxis from the Mumbai airport, the taxi unions were up in arms. They caused all sorts of fuss. Imagine – by giving commuters a real choice, they might take the nice clean taxi with a non-paan chewing driver. How terrible. So, under political pressure, the airport caved to the unions, and once again Mumbai citizens are worse off.
The number of drivers on the roads should be left to market forces. Fine, set some basic requirements such as language, or knowledge of city landmarks, but then let anyone who meets these requirements work. Because there are so many needy passengers right now, many more drivers could begin working and there would be enough fares for all the drivers. If too many new drivers come, then the earnings per driver will drop and some will find other employment that pays them more. The market will reach an equilibrium on its own.
So why was Meter Jam doomed to be without impact? The number of rickshaws on the roads is so low that a massive number of passengers would have to refuse to use them before there would be any impact on the driver’s wages. Lakhs and lakhs of people travel by rickshaw daily, and I’m sure many more would if they could find one, but instead walk or take the bus. Even if 50,000 people joined this protest, each driver could still get all the fares they want. You would need at least 200,000 people to join in, before the drivers felt any pinch at all. Sadly, for many people, there is no other transport option. Those with luggage, or living in quieter areas, may not be able to use busses and walking is too far. it is too much to expect that those people will miss work or struggle even more than usual, so that rickshaw drivers earn a little less for one day.
Perhaps if politicians lost their cars and had to travel by public transport, things would suddenly start improving 🙂