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Vol. XXXII No. 7, July 16-31, 2022

City auto drivers push forward in demand for State-sponsored app

-- by our Special Correspondent

The first week of the month saw a large gathering of auto and taxi drivers congregate outside the Tamil Nadu Labour Welfare Board building at DMS compound, Teynampet. The crowd – with a headcount reportedly crossing 1,000 drivers – had assembled under the aegis of the CITU (Centre of Indian Trade Unions) to present a list of demands to the Commissionerate of Labour. The members of Labour ­Progressive Front, CITU, All India Trade Union Congress and Indian National Trade Union had together staged a protest earlier in April as well, outside the Rajarathinam Stadium at Egmore. At the forefront of the demands is the development of a government app to replace privately-owned services such as Ola, Uber and Rapido – a move, the union says, that will bring benefits for all stakeholders from the administration and drivers to passengers.

The State President of the Auto-Taxi Workers Union S. Balasubramanian believes that a government app would generate stable pay for drivers while reducing costs borne by passengers. “They only receive Rs. 15 km per hour working for Ola and Uber, who take twice the amount fixed by the government – this can be prevented,” he pointed out in a quote to the media. Auto aggregators are said to take away 30 per cent commission per ride, leaving drivers with a smaller portion of their earnings; the government app as envisioned by the unions is proposed to carry a takeaway commission of 15 per cent.

The union states that it is increasingly difficult to meet expenses in the light of burgeoning fuel prices, which as of July 12 stood at Rs. 102.6 per litre for petrol and Rs. 94.4 per litre for diesel. The last fare revision from the Tamil Nadu State Government was in 2013, when petrol was priced at Rs. 77 per litre – the official fares had then been fixed at the currently prevailing base charge of Rs. 25 for the first 1.8 kms and Rs. 12 for each subsequent kilometre. The Madras High Court had directed the State Government to revise meter tariffs in 2016. Last month, it was reported that a State interdepartmental committee submitted its report on fare revision – it recommended that the minimum fare for the first 1.8 kms be increased to Rs. 40 and that further kilometres be charged at Rs. 18 per km. The proposal was rejected by the unions, who felt that the increase would not help offset the surge in fuel prices – they instead raised a call for a minimum fare of Rs. 45 and a base fare of Rs. 20 per km. Transportation activist R. Rengachari points out that app-based aggregators slip under the radar of prevailing fare policies. In a quote to the Times of India he says, “Cases of overcharging are booked against a few auto drivers while aggregators are allowed to go scot free despite doing the same in the name of surge pricing.” Given the context, the union’s demand for a state-administered app admittedly gains credence. In truth, it’s not just the fuel prices that are choking the community’s livelihoods – exacerbating the situation is a drop in passenger numbers. Not only is the pandemic-induced dip yet to recover, but the free bus ride scheme for women floated by the administration has compelled many to choose buses over autos. Between slimmer margins and a smaller pool of passengers, many drivers are finding it hard to make ends meet, for there has been little relief in expenditure such as road tax, green tax, insurance and fitness certificates. In fact, multiple ground reports suggest that many are jumping ship to other professions.

Chennai is said to be home to close to a lakh of registered auto drivers. Much like other wage-earning communities, they too are struggling to navigate punishing economic times. It behooves the administration to move quickly to find a solution that protects their livelihoods as well as the interests of passengers.

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