Friday, February 14, 2014

The Auto Rickshaw strike in Kochi – the policy imbroglio

by D. Dhanuraj

The recent strike by the Auto Rickshaw drivers in Kochi City exposes the fundamental flaws in the Governance structure and policy note. Kochi is one of the emerging metro cities in South India having a total population of 1.8 million spread out in Cochin and suburbs.

The commuting population to the city from the suburbs and the neighboring districts generate more than 50% of the total revenue generated in the State of Kerala. Commuting public use various modes of transport to reach the city limits that include KSRTC and Private Buses, Private vehicles like cars and two wheelers and ferry services. But within the city, many depend on the auto rickshaws (autos as we call them) for a number of reasons;

(1) Though many inroads and by lanes are developed as commercial streets, at times they are not wide enough for bus services.

 (2) Mostly the RTO has failed in issuing fresh routes for buses to cover these areas.

 (3) Another reason is the scheduling of buses. Anybody waiting for a bus at a bus stop has absolutely no clue of the timing and route of the next bus. This encourages the commuters to hire autos to go to their destinations, if they are in a hurry. 

(4)The CBD is small in size so that the average commuting distance is less than 6 to 8 Kms most of the times, which make autos more preferable.  

(5)There is an increased number of women commuters depending on the autos in Kochi as they consider the autos are more safe and comfortable than the buses in the city limits.

(6)The autos are available at the door steps in the most parts of the city and it helps to ease the last mile connectivity issues in the transportation grid of Kochi.

In an inspection drive last year, Motor Vehicle Department (MVD) in Kochi had identified 5600 illegal autos plying on the streets of Cochin. (http://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/over-5600-autos-plying-illegally-in-kochi-city/article4443689.ece). Subsequently, it was decided to raise the numbers of autos in Cochin to 7000. Though there are many disputes regarding this, it shows the dependency and the significance of autos in the transport grid of Kochi city.

It is in this context, the strike called by the auto drivers shall be analyzed. The reason they had cited was the harassment by police for the irregularities in the meters in the autos.

In the present context, I largely plead for the meter reading according to the trip charges against the arbitrary fixation of the charge by the auto driver. I am of the opinion that if the drivers are tampering the meters, they should be debarred from driving the autos.

Media reports suggest that the auto rickshaw unions also favor pre-paid autos and metered pricing.
This means, their issue is something different; they claim that the fare decided by the Government does not meet their expenses hence they end up bargaining and quarreling with the commuters.  They have many reasons for their grievances; from the diesel price hike to metro corridor congestion to inflation and so on..
Actually, what is the scenario in Kerala in deciding the auto rickshaw fare? Who is responsible for the auto fares in Cochin? I tried to understand the latest policy note from the MVD website (http://www.keralamvd.gov.in/images/mvd/GOs/2012/77-12.pdf). It advocates for more or less the same fares across the State except in a few cases in few cities (that include Kochi also). But the gist is that the fares are same across the State. If that is the case, I am tempted to believe that there is a strong case for revising the ways by which the auto fares are fixed in the State.

How could it be possible for the autos to charge the same fare in a hilly district like Idukky or Wayanad to that with a congested city like Kochi? Don’t you think that the fares are not based on the actual situations prevailing in the eco system that each auto rickshaw operates? Why should it be decided at the State level and not at the city level or at the Urban Local Body (ULB) level.

I strongly believe there are convincing reasons for the auto drivers to get agitated if the local conditions, commuting volume and distance, congestion, last mile connectivity issues etc are not taken solved. The local ward councilors with the help of the transport expert should be able to work with the auto drivers and their unions to arrive at the suitable pricing formulas. Or, in the case of city like Kochi, it shall be the responsibility of the Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (CUMTA in this case) to deliberate on these matters. Auto rickshaw sector shall be encouraged and incentivized for using digital meters, android applications, GPS meters along with assurance of the choice for opting for share autos or single passenger system.  In fact, if the abnormalities in the system are not solved, this one would be one of the major challenges for the upcoming Kochi metro as the feeder system through autos will fail to take off and will lead to conflicts and strikes.

This is a classic case for the empowerment of the city administration to deal with the basic infrastructure and transportation requirements!

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