In a city like Chennai where public transportation is not really optimal in terms of supporting last mile connectivity, share autos are the cheapest and easiest option and have naturally emerged as the common man’s preferred mode of transport. But the advantages of this intermediate public transport or para transit cannot override the range of problems faced by commuters and even share auto drivers themselves.
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In Part 1 of the series on share autos, we discussed why share autos are necessary, especially in view of the demand surplus that crowded MTC buses are not able to meet. But commuters list an array of problems with share autos, reiterating the urgent need to formalise the sector.
Any share auto commuter can relate to the range of problems that vary from congestion to unacceptable behaviour on the part of the drivers. Some of the most common problems faced by passengers relate to:
*Overcrowding: Share auto drivers do not start the vehicle unless they are packed like a can of sardines, often with people twice its regular capacity. This causes suffocation on the one hand, and awkward or uncomfortable situations on the other, especially when seats for men and women are not marked separately.
*Defying road rules: Share auto drivers are notorious for breaking lanes and not using indicators, thus putting not only riders, but also other road users at risk.
*Health hazard: The ergonomics of seating is so poor in the share autos (especially yellow ones) that it can lead to spinal health issues.
*Misbehaviour: Shocking incidents such as men masturbating in share autos, eve teasing and clicking pictures of girls have been shared by regular commuters on social media.
*Absence of redress: There is no complaint and redress mechanism against the harassment and misbehaviour faced in share autos. The available toll free number (1 800 425 5430) shared by the transport department does not accept complaints against the white Tata Magic share autos, as they don’t come under any official category. Speedy action which is essential in case of complaints against abuse cannot be expected. Calls are not processed for at least 24 hours, as was proved by a recent reality check done by Citizen Matters Chennai.
*No transparency in pricing: During night hours and times of crisis such as a bus strike, share autos double their fare. There are also many incidents of them varying the fare from person to person, as drivers fix the fare. Once the drivers get a cue that you are an outsider, fares go up the sky.
It is not as if drivers have it all going their way.
Share auto drivers are always apprehensive of the presence of cops, since they are given the same contract carriage permit as that of autos, that legally does not allow them to stop anywhere at will, pick up a commuter and then drop him at any point. “There is no separate permit for share autos, the reason why traffic police levy penalty on us. Every share auto driver pays Rs 100 to the police each day. The silver lining is that there is a discount on it — we can pay Rs 200 for four days at once,” said a share auto driver at Chennai Central.
The biggest bummer for the white Tata Magic autos is that they are given tourist permits. A tourist permit is usually given to private buses and cabs and they have to pay a higher tax to the RTO compared to autos. “I pay Rs 8000 as tax per year, while my counterpart who owns the yellow share auto pays a mere Rs 1000! The transport department has allowed the white vans to run as share autos, to meet the increasing demand for transportation. But they did not bother to change the tax rates for us,” said R Issac, a white Tata Magic driver, who makes trips between Nungambakkam and LIC stop.
Time to go the Pondicherry way?
The recurring problems in the share auto sector can be settled, if the mode is formalised. Pondicherry which saw the emergence of share autos in late 1960s, has blazed a trail by introducing the ticketing system. According to G Srinivasan, CITU auto Association Secretary, Pondicherry, the ticketing system introduced last year in the union territory has solved an array of problems. “It is the RTO that decides the fare for share autos, not the drivers (like in Chennai). The move happened after the RTO and the labour officers held talks with the auto drivers last year,” shared Srinivasan.
Experts also advocate a Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority that could license and decide on policy for all transport services, with the Metro, MTC and other transport agencies focusing on implementation and operations. The Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA) Act was conceptualised eight years ago but is yet to be notified.
“CUMTA should lay out pricing strategies, route designs, and last mile connectivity in a holistic fashion. Share autos today are largely running on their own, without any body to regulate the services. The push to notify that Act is the need of the hour,” says Nashwa Nushad, Associate, Urban Development, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.
The state transport authority is however uncertain as to when the CUMTA may be notified. A senior official revealed that there is no tentative plan to formalise the share auto system in Chennai, although services attached to metro rail have been formalised. Until the share autos in general are regulated, Chennai will continue to suffer the consequences of inadequate public transport and illegal private players.
(With inputs provided by Hridya, Vikram Sreenivasan, ChandraMohan V Ramakrishnan, Manikanteswari Sreenivas, Deepak Raghuraman, Anand Vaidyanathan, David Manohar and Sheela Anand — all members of the Facebook group, The New Face of the Society)