A ride in an auto rickshaw in suburban Mumbai turned out to be an unexpected educational experience for Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar.
The relationship between Mumbaikars and autorickshaw drivers operating in the metropolis has been somewhat rocky of late. The penchant of rickshaw drivers to go on flash strikes to press for their demands has angered Mumbaikars, who are therefore forced to travel in packed buses or remain stranded for hours.
Union leader Sharad Rao has issued statements, Samajwadi Party leader Abu Azmi has mouthed platitudes and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena chief Raj Thakeray has made threats.
But what do Mumbai's auto rickshaw drivers really want?
We put this question to Bora Gowda, 50, who has been driving an auto rickshaw in Mumbai since 1995. This is what he told us:
Is there a strike tomorrow? Do you know? Never mind, I will read tomorrow's paper and find out myself.
You know, the minimum auto rickshaw fare in Delhi is Rs 19 and in Bangalore it is Rs 16. Why is it only Rs 11 in Mumbai when we pay the same price for petrol and gas?
Have you ever seen an autorickshaw accident? Never! We never cause accidents but I have to pay Rs 4,000 for insurance every year. Why? They eat away our earnings. Calculate how much money I must have given them (insurance agencies) since 1995, without a single accident and a single claim.
I work from morning till night and what do I get? The policemen take my money, the money lenders take my money and the mechanic takes my money.
See this steering handle. To fix a small pin that broke in it, I had to pay Rs 230 right now. Just for one small pin!
The policemen take whatever money I have on some pretext or the other. There are fraud autorickshaw drivers who tarnish our names. I never refuse any fare.
Sharad Rao is going to ask for a minimum fare of Rs 19 like Delhi but that's only for the sake of bargaining. We will be happy with Rs 15.
See that girl; she almost walked into my rickshaw and I had to swerve. She is talking on her mobile phone and is not bothered (about the oncoming traffic). She will get hurt and I will go to jail.
See that stupid driver of the Maruti Swift driver; he is coming close to me. Why? He is also talking on his mobile phone. These two must be fined Rs 1,500 and also caned in public. Then only they will improve.
No bank will give us a loan, even a small one. They will grant a loan to buy an autorickshaw but not for small expenses.
The RTO gives us an annual fitness certificate for our autos. No one asks for the drivers' fitness certificate. We have so many health problems but no one is bothered.
To pay for these fitness certificates we borrow from annas (South Indian money lenders). The anna charges us 10 per cent interest for 50 days. If you ask for Rs 5,000, they will deduct 10 per cent interest and give you Rs 4,500. You have to pay Rs 100 every day for 50 days. I give it in 65 to 70 days (laughs).
Do you know about this baniya (trader) near my house? Like me, he was from Karnataka and got married to a girl from Mangalore. He borrowed from 15 annas and also took Rs one lakh from his landlord. The he hung himself from his fan.
The police found 15 cards of money lenders in his house. They went looking for them but could not find a single anna. They had all run away. Actually, those annas must have bribed the policemen to let them go. They stayed away for six months but now they are back.
They are still lending money at such high interest rates. But besides them, there is no one who can lend us money during an emergency.
You look like a person with a monthly salary. Anna won't give you money. They give only daily earners like us, fishermen, vegetable sellers and small shop owners.
I hope they raise our minimum fares. You know the price of gas and petrol has gone up. No one understands us or our problems. They think that we only refuse fares and act rudely and arrogantly.
(People should understand that) we too are human beings who are trying to make ends meet. I have been working for 16 years and what do I have to show for it? Nothing!