Dishonesty Is the Best Rickshaw Policy

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Christophe Archambault / AFP / Getty

An Indian auto-rickshaw driver stands next to his vehicle as he waits for customers.

There are few things Delhi residents hate more than the green and yellow auto rickshaws and their drivers who buzz around the capital disobeying traffic rules, randomly refusing to take fares and ripping passengers off whenever they can. There are more than 55,000 auto rickshaws in Delhi — motorized versions of the cycle rickshaws of old — and, after government agencies and the police, the drivers "are seen as the most corrupt and crooked lot in Delhi," according to the non-governmental agency NyayaBhoomi, which focuses on improvements in the city's water supply, sanitation and transport and which has studied public perceptions of the tinny three-wheelers and their pilots.

That may be why, last November, Delhi's rickshaw drivers decided to do something about their image. With a little help from NyayaBhoomi they launched a campaign that promised a new, improved attitude. NyayaBhoomi says that its research shows that an honest driver can make just as much money as his cheating cousin and encouraged rickshaw drivers — about 50 took the bait — to go completely straight and see what happened. "We want to build a new relationship of trust," went one slogan. Another, which was stuck onto the rear of compliant auto rickshaws, read: "I am proud to be an honest driver and please pardon me for my past mistakes."

It didn't last long. Within a few weeks the auto rickshaw drivers had given up. The few dozen honest drivers at the lead of the campaign reported that honesty not only didn't pay, but that they were forced to borrow money just to feed their families. Stung, the drivers have launched a new campaign, which essentially explains why it is they have to cheat and lie. "How can we be honest?" a new signs on rickshaws reads, before listing a series of reasons why drivers are forced to behave badly. Among them: city officials recently voted themselves a 100% pay rise while auto rickshaw drivers have gone years without a fare increase; the cost of natural gas, which the city forced auto rickshaws to use a few years back, has gone up more than 70% in the past year; and the price of an auto rickshaw ride in other Indian cities is much higher.

The drivers and workers rights' advocates at NyayaBhoomi say the real crooks are the city officials. "Politicians have left no stone unturned to portray auto rickshaw drivers as dishonest, cheats and rude. The reality, however, is that they are the victims of the same political games that have played havoc with the entire public transport system of Delhi," reports NyayaBhoomi's website. "There are scores of other problems which the politicians do not want to address. The result is that in spite of cheating you, most auto drivers live in slums or resettlement colonies. Their children are forced into child labor. Thousands of auto drivers are forced to depend upon rented auto rickshaws for their livelihood in spite of having spent 30 years or more in the trade."

If the government had increased the fares after the drivers' attempts at better manners, says auto driver Sunil Kumar, 32, "then we would have continued. But why should we try to be nice when we are paid nothing?" Kumar, the father of a five-year-old boy, says he makes a few thousand rupees a month, the equivalent of about $100. He says the drivers can't go on strike or their children will go hungry. In any case, says Kumar, it's only a small minority of rickshaw drivers, especially ones who service the train and bus stations, "who give us a bad image. They just grab people and force them into their auto. There is no please or thank you with them."

But changing those sort of attitudes may take more than just a fare increase. "You cannot expect these people to change overnight," concedes Rakesh Agarwal, a spokesman for NyayaBhoomi. "We realize that now. This behavior is ingrained into their DNA." Enforcing regulations might help, but the Delhi transport authority seems less than enthusiastic about policing faulty meters and following up complaints about rude drivers. According to the Hindustan Times newspaper there are currently more than 71,000 complaints pending against "errant auto drivers", more than the total number of auto rickshaws in all of Delhi. Last year authorities inspected fewer than 5,000 autos for faulty meters, just under half of which proved defective. Still, a fare rise would help, insists Kumar. "It changes the frame of your mind." Until that happens, Delhi's auto rickshaw drivers will continue being honest about why they're not.