Delhi’s autowallas struggle as a result of a consumer-centric perspective.
Photo: Flickr / trevor.patt
Delhi’s autowallas struggle as a result of a consumer-centric perspective. Photo: Flickr / trevor.patt

Moving the city

Recognising the labour of Delhi’s auto drivers.

(This is an essay from our March 2015 print quarterly 'Labour and its discontents'. See more from the issue here.)

It's hard to believe, but the Indian auto rickshaw has its origins in a small three-wheeled Italian goods vehicle. The precursor to Bajaj Auto Limited (BAL) saw the potential of Piaggio's Ape, and began building it under licence in the 1970s for carrying passengers quickly and cheaply over short distances. BAL beefed up the engine, moved it to the rear, reducing noise and heat, added a rear bench, and so the Indian auto rickshaw was born. In 2010 alone, 500,000 auto rickshaws were sold in India. They make around 229 million trips a day, a figure expected to double in the next 15 years. Not only is the humble 'auto' a vital cog in the urban transport system of India, it is a major source of employment. Each auto requires two drivers (for the two daily shifts), and an array of mechanics and spare-parts dealers keep the vehicles running. There are around 80,000 autos on the road in Delhi, with roughly 125,000 drivers.

Although auto rickshaws are an established part of daily life in Delhi, they are not without controversy. Auto drivers are perceived by many in the middle class as an 'informal' nuisance, free to run amok in the city backed by powerful, well-connected unions. But Delhi's auto sector is in no way informal or unregulated; the regulatory burden on auto drivers is, contrary to popular opinion, heavy and puts drivers in a vulnerable position. Neither are there powerful auto unions in the city to protect them.

Regulated roads
As passenger vehicles, Delhi's auto rickshaws fall into what urban planners call 'para-transit', namely vehicles without timetables or set routes, which can be flagged at the roadside and go wherever the passenger asks them to or not. Traditionally, in the absence of efficient mass-transit systems, auto rickshaws in Delhi were used for point-to-point trips, taking passengers directly from their homes to offices, or offices to markets. However, with the emergence of the Delhi Metro, autos are increasingly providing 'last mile connectivity', linking residential areas to metro stations.

Despite the relative convenience of the service – quickly hailing a vehicle and getting dropped directly at your destination at reasonable prices is a distant dream for commuters in many global cities – auto rickshaws and their drivers are typically viewed as an informal nuisance which must be endured en route to formal transport. Auto drivers are often associated with 'venal' behaviour such as ignoring meter regulations in order to overcharge passengers. These actions are perceived as having little punitive consequence as auto drivers are believed to enjoy immunity from prosecution which comes with their informal status and union membership. Within this rendering, auto drivers exist outside of the kind of regulatory oversight of and interactions with India's labyrinthine bureaucracy, which dog their middle-class passengers. As such, frustrated passengers have often come to see themselves as a new type of aam aadmi, a middle-class 'common man' who feels stuck between 'greedy drivers' and their powerful union backers on the one hand, and an ineffective and approving government on the other. The popular solution is to bring these marauding 'informal' elements under the ambit of regulation, typically with strict technical and judicial policies to curb their insolence, such as GPS systems to track their every move and harsh penalties for refusal and overcharging. But how informal are Delhi's auto rickshaws?

Informality is a slippery concept. The National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector (NCEUS) defines 'informal' workers as those who do not receive benefits from their employers. This includes those running unincorporated enterprises. Workers in the formal sector may be employed on informal terms. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) adds that informal enterprises do not keep accounts and that these enterprises should be owned by members of the same household. These definitions appear to place auto-rickshaw drivers firmly in the informal camp: autowallas are not incorporated and they neither keep accounts nor receive benefits. However, anyone taking an auto-rickshaw trip in Delhi only has to glance at the driver and the vehicle to realise the shortcomings of this definition: the driver wears a grey uniform – all the autowallas do; the auto is painted green and yellow – they all are; the dashboard displays various pollution and insurance certificates; and the vehicle uses compressed natural gas (CNG) rather than petrol.

A quick chat with any driver will reveal that the autowallas are in no way exempt from the customary byzantine Indian bureaucracy. At all times, the driver has to carry a commercial licence, commercial badge, meter certificate, road tax, registration book, annual fitness certificate, quarterly pollution control certificate, insurance documents and the all-important operating permit. His vehicle also has to comply with a raft of aesthetic regulations governing everything from paint colours to trivialities like the writing of the letters 'TSR' on the number plate. Failure to do so can mean hefty fines as outlined by Section 66/192 A of the Motor Vehicles Act: INR 5400 for a missing fitness certificate; INR 900 for plying without the latest pollution control certificate; and vehicle impoundment for plying without a permit or overcharging or refusing a passenger. Hardly a licence to run riot. Contrary to popular belief, regulations are enforced as their exacting nature is a boon for the traffic police, who can stop just about any passing auto rickshaw and find at least one rule the driver is breaking. Bribes follow. The larger the apparent transgression, the larger the bribe.

How can an occupation that requires the operator to carry around nine mandatory government-approved documents be informal? Ravi Kanbur, economist at Cornell University and former director of the World Bank's World Development Report, provides a simple answer: it cannot. Informality, he argues, should be measured by the relationship between the enterprise and regulation. True informal enterprises are outside the ambit of regulation and thus have nothing with which to comply; formal enterprises are subject to regulations to which they are largely compliant. Between the two are 'avoiders', who change their operations to avoid oversight, and 'evaders', who simply ignore regulations. Given the wad of official paperwork and the raft of severe penalties for transgression, Kanbur's simple, elegant framework puts Delhi's auto rickshaws firmly in the formal sector – just like the Delhi Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) buses.

Unlike these major corporations, Delhi’s auto drivers occupy a peculiar and precarious position in the labour market. Their ability to earn is regulated by the fare meter, which is calculated to cover the driver’s costs and reward him with the minimum monthly income of a semi-skilled worker – INR 9438 (USD 150) according to government calculations – typically support ing three or four dependents. However, unlike semi-skilled daily-wage labourers, auto drivers must take risks: they must invest to earn, either in repayments on their own vehicle or in rent to the owner. On a bad day, they face the real possibility of negligible or even negative incomes. Their prices are capped by the fare meter and cannot be changed to reflect costs, such as CNG price rises. The price of their fuel is set by the market, as is the cost of their vehicles. Stuck between tightly controlled incomes and unregulated costs, Delhi’s auto drivers face two main policy issues: the fare meter and permits.

The meter fare is set by a committee of Transport Department officials that calculates a semi-skilled worker’s wage using an approximation of the costs and revenues of the average autowalla, an approach used by auto-rickshaw and taxi regulators across India and beyond. The method of calculation may be practical but its failure, from the point-of-view of auto drivers, is that there is no set timetable for fare revision. The revised fare guarantees the driver a decent wage in the weeks following a fare hike, but rapid inflation of both fuel and living costs mean that it gradually becomes obsolete. A year later, the fare meter will have become such a poor reflection of costs that almost all drivers in the city revert to haggling, which to the passengers appears as an expression of individual venality. Bad tempered, antagonistic exchanges between drivers and passengers persist until the authorities, no longer able to ignore the reality of inadequate fares, revise the meter fare. But for auto drivers, the reputational damage has been done.

The meter restricts driver income; the costs of operating an auto rickshaw are not only unrestricted by regulation, they are actually inflated by it. The Supreme Court capped the number of auto rickshaws in Delhi in 1997 in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by environmentalist lawyer M C Mehta, effectively creating a zero-sum game for operating permits. Even though the cap was modified in 2002 to allow another 5000 vehicles, operating permits have been traded on a burgeoning black market. This market reached its zenith in 2010, when anyone wishing to own an auto rickshaw was obliged to pay Bajaj INR 1.75 lakh (USD 2800) – the book price for an auto rickshaw –  and a further INR 5 lakh (USD 8000) to a financier for an operating permit. The loan for the vehicle and permit combination was provided by the financier in typical black-market style: high interest, multiple blank contracts, changing conditions and huge penalties for late payments, all of which made paying off the loan – and gaining full ownership of the vehicle and permit – almost impossible. The Supreme Court’s announcement of 45,000 additional auto permits in 2011, relaxing the cap on auto rickshaws from 55,000 to one lakh, went some way to breaking the black market. However, although the permit is technically free, drivers still pay over the odds for their vehicles – INR 2.2 lakh (USD 3520) for an INR 1.75 lakh (USD 2800) auto – due to an arrangement between auto dealers and Transport Department officials under which the latter only issue permits to drivers who have overpaid the former.

Winning over the sector
How do auto drivers negotiate these problems? How do they protect themselves? In other Indian cities, the short answer would be to form auto-rickshaw unions. Mumbai has strong auto unions, which effectively protect the welfare of their members and provide input to policy decisions. One such input was the union’s contribution to the groundbreaking Hakim Report, which lays out a systematic process for regular fare revision. Bangalore’s auto unions are also strong on lobbying, frequently making demands for new permits and fare hikes. Meanwhile, the organisation and political connections of Kolkata’s auto unions are well known. Delhi’s auto unions, in contrast, are less influential.

It is estimated that there are anywhere between 15 to 25 auto unions in the capital. A couple of them have modest memberships in the high hundreds, employing one or two people, squeezed into cramped shoebox offices located among oily auto repair shops. Some simply meet on street corners. Most, however, are solo operations that centre around a self-styled ‘union leader’, complete with visiting cards, connections inside the Transport Department’s Auto Rickshaw Unit, a hub of torturous auto-related paperwork. Membership, usually available for a nominal fee, entitles the driver to enlist the services of the ‘union leader’ at the Auto Rickshaw Unit. For a fee, the leader gets paperwork processed quickly and persuades the officials to overlook omissions. In short, they operate as touts: only the union leaders are allowed in the Auto Rickshaw Unit building. While some may have a genuine interest in the welfare of their members, their business is very much day-to-day paperwork. Unlike their counterparts in the other major cities, they lack the backing and the will to lobby for reform.

But this has not always been the case. Delhi’s first autowallas were predominantly Sikhs who had moved to Delhi from western Punjab in the post-Partition era. For these recent arrivals, auto driving was a relatively easy way to make a living in the city and carve out a niche for themselves in this new and growing city. The old Punjabi-dominated auto unions were vocal, boisterous and strong in representing their members’ interests, reflecting, some claim, the stereotyped fiery Punjabi temperament. Harassment by police and officials was also less frequent. However, by the 1980s, the upwardly-mobile Sikhs had homes, businesses and a firm foothold in the city. They drifted from auto driving towards more lucrative professions, to be replaced in the driver’s seat by a wave of migrants from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh (UP). A large number of these rural-urban migrants from the ‘cow belt’ saw their stay in the capital as a temporary arrangement. They came to work hard, stay quiet, earn their money and send it to their families back home who they would rejoin after a year or two of stoic drudgery in Delhi. This created a feeling of detachment from the city and its injustices: what was the point spending time, money and effort on a union if you were to go home eventually? There was thus little incentive to push for long-term change, their concerns being more immediate: how to get paperwork processed and how to circumvent errors and oversights in the documents. These tasks required a new kind of auto union, one centred on bureaucracy and connections, rather than collective bargaining.

As time passed, even the migrant drivers from Bihar and UP began to settle permanently in Delhi, moving their families from their home villages. Farming was hard, landholdings were becoming ever smaller and Delhi offered the possibility of less arduous, more varied employment. Having committed themselves to life in the metropolis, the injustices of auto driving began to rankle. Police harassment, corrupt officials and extortionate permit prices became hard to ignore. An increasing number of drivers could no longer simply shrug their shoulders, hand over their hard earned cash and think of a swift return home. Meter rates, long unrevised, began to appear stingy when there was a family to pay for in a city with inflated prices. The disaffection was palpable, slow-burning, but voiceless as the existing ‘unions’, as one-man paperwork hustlers, were incapable of articulating this dissatisfaction politically or legally. Furthermore, any union with a genuine desire for change risked being found guilty by association – just another front for a tout.

The apolitical, mercantile nature of Delhi’s auto unions helped the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) successful mobilisation of the city’s autowallas for the 2013 and 2015 Delhi Assembly elections. Auto drivers had never been mobilised on this grand a scale in Delhi before, but their numbers and list of grievances with the authorities made them a valuable vote bloc for any party that could win them over. But the AAP could not simply rely on negotiating terms with one or two powerful unions each with a few thousand drivers at the ready; it had to find another strategy. To its advantage, the fledgling AAP had among its earliest backers Rakesh Agarwal, founder of the NGO Nyayabhoomi, which had spent the past decade campaigning – and often fighting thankless court cases – on auto-related issues. Agarwal is widely credited with mobilising Delhi’s auto drivers for the party. It was no stranger to grassroots mobilisation. The AAP listened carefully to Nyayabhoomi and came up with a list of policy reforms to the auto sector which would be popular with the city’s disaffected drivers. It offered to set up auto stands, to crack down heavily on bribe-taking from the police and Transport Department officials, to issue new operating permits, and to repeal Section 66/192 A with its notoriously disproportionate punishments. AAP was endorsed by Nyayabhoomi, lending its weight and hard-won reputation to the nascent party.

The plan worked. Auto drivers flocked to the party; thousands of autos carried AAP posters featuring the party’s electoral symbol, the jhadu (broom), which had come to represent the sweeping away of corruption from the old, tired and long-discredited political establishment and the lethargic bureaucracy. It worked because the party had the advantage of having Agarwal in its ranks. The AAP won over the auto sector because it did not regard auto driving as a lawless informal occupation and promised to reform the regulations rather than turn the screw on drivers. The absence of strong unions also played to the AAP’s hand. Had there been a few powerful auto unions, the party would have had its work cut out fighting the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress for their support. In the 2013 elections, the AAP won 28 seats and formed a government with the depleted Congress. In the more recent Assembly elections, in 2015, the AAP won a massive 67 seats.

Fulfilment of the pledges made to auto drivers by AAP, has however been patchy. As a result, Agarwal held a press conference to voice his disappointment and reiterate his demands, and a disgruntled auto driver even slapped Kejriwal in public.

Beyond simple binaries
At the heart of AAP’s successful mobilisation of auto drivers lies a single key factor: the recognition of the validity of their labour. That validity had always existed, but had gone unrecognised. This is not to say that the success of the mobilisation did not also depend on the context: the history of auto unions in the city, their recent form, Agarwal’s presence, and a strong anti-incumbency attitude towards a Congress government seen as weak and corrupt.

The predicament of Delhi’s auto drivers is not unique. In India, almost all occupations are subject to the country’s exhaustive labour laws, while enforcement is a different matter. There are detailed regulations even on begging and street hawking, which hawkers avoid, evade and also comply with, often all in the same afternoon. Multinational companies perform a similar dance with, and occasionally around, complex tax laws and planning permissions. The perception that some labour is valid and some not is erroneous. It is the recognition of validity that mobilised auto drivers for the AAP, and it is this recognition that is required to push beyond the simple binaries of formal-informal labour that does such disservice to the intricacy of Indian labour.

~Simon Harding is a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada. His research focuses on transportation in urban India.

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