Chennai: The concept of share-autos began in Chennai five years ago in a diminutive manner as auto drivers started plying their vehicles on share basis on the East Coast Road (ECR) between Adyar and Injambakkam.
Today, there are more than 2,400 registered share-autos just from Regional Transport Office (RTO) South, which not only provide quick and alternative transport, but are also relatively cheaper than a Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) bus.
Following the success of these share-autos, a number of van operators started shuttle service over short distance where the MTC bus services were not adequate to meet demands.
Vignesh Jayappam, who owns a fleet of ‘Ape’ model share-autos, says that the income from share-autos is very good. “Earlier I used to give cars on rent, but I slowly changed my business. At present, I have 28 share-autos running on the ECR and other parts of the city. It’s been a profitable business so far.”
While the share-autos may provide convenient transportation as they can stop anywhere the passengers want, they have raised quite a few question marks over the safety of the passengers.
The ‘Ape model’ share-autos are designed to carry only three passengers, but are often found ferrying more than twice the number. The majority of auto drivers have modified their vehicles by installing a wooden plank just above the back engine, which serves as a seat and thereby increasing the seating capacity of the vehicle.
Selvam who charts an auto for Rs. 550 per day says that he needs to carry as many passengers as possible to repay the rent. “We carry around 12 passengers and sometime during peak hours, even 15. If we do not overload, we would not be able to get the returns and pay the rent. Most of the days, we are forced to pay the rent from out of our pockets.”
On being asked where he modifies the autos, Selvam says that they can get their autos modified at any local transport shop along ECR. “They fix a wooden plank above the engine for a nominal amount. The government authorities know that vehicles are modified here, but they do not do anything.”
According to Selvam, the number of illegal share-autos which are not registered by the RTO have increased over the years. “It is now a question of survival for us,” he says. On an average, an auto can shuttle ten times between Adyar and Injambakkam on ECR, which is a prime location for IT sector passengers, he adds.
Though aware of the danger the share-autos pose, the public in the highly populated and congested stretch do not mind travelling through such vehicles. “We do not have a choice given the limited frequency of public transport. The situation is worse during peak hours, and the buses ply packed,” says Mrs. Kamala, a 45-year-old teacher, who depends mostly on the share-autos to reach the city.
Regarding this, Tamil Selvarajam, Asst. Director (Public Relations), MTC says, “We introduced small buses in Chennai with the aim to ferry passengers to localities where the usual buses cannot go. But the response hasn’t been that great.” The reason for this is not difficult to guess, share-autos can stop anywhere they want, buses need to maintain a discipline and stop only at bus stops. “Even though the rates of small buses are cheaper than the share-autos, public prefers taking them so that they can get off right next to their house or office,” adds Selvarajam.
“The minimum rate in the share-auto is Rs. 5 and the maximum Rs 20. This enables us to quickly collect cash once the passenger gets off, so that we can look for another passenger before the signal turns green,” says K. Anbazhagan who has been driving on the Kovalam – Kelambakkam route for over five years.
“The share-autos are a nuisance to the society. The auto drivers follow absolutely no rules and have no traffic sense. They are always looking to earn more during peak hours by making as many trips as possible. In this process, everyone on the road is put to risk. I prefer using call taxis over share-autos,” said Arun Daniel (45), a techie working near Guindy Industrial Estate.
Not only being a nuisance to the society, share-autos use kids as conductors. Over 100 children, aged between 10 and 15, are employed in the share-autos as conductors. Their job is to ensure the vehicle is filled up, and collect the money from the passengers.
“For the six to seven hour job, we get paid Rs 30, and get lunch and tea free,” says Mani, a 10-year-old boy, who has been doing the job for over six months.
As the clock strikes nine in the morning, M. Mahalakshmi of T. Nagar gets jittery. It is time for her husband to leave home for office on his motorcycle. She is worried about his safety on the city roads, “People assume that only those in the Armed Forces risk their lives day in and day out. But with increasing road traffic, unruly auto drivers with disorderly driving patterns and complete chaos on the roads, even civilians like us run the risk of shedding blood in the course of our routine work,” she says. And the main culprit, she says, is share-autorickshaws.
According to C. Karuppuchamy, Regional Traffic Commissioner, Thiruvanmiyur, there are many share-autos plying without proper registrations in the city. “Despite the introduction of small buses by the MTC, share-autos remain popular on important routes in Chennai. This frustrates the traffic police officials but sometimes our hands are tied. Many of the auto drivers are affiliated to specific political parties and have strong unions backing them. If we try doing a crack-down on illegal autos, they threaten to call a strike,” adds Karuppuchamy.
Vijayaraj, Joint Transport Commissioner, (Road Safety) said that there are over 80,000 auto-rickshaws, including share-autos, in the city. “These vehicles carry more than 8 or 10 passengers, which is dangerous. The State transport department has begun cracking down on overcrowded auto-rickshaws, especially the modified ones that operate as share-autos.”
“The Transport Department also plans to take stringent action against the auto drivers found ferrying excessive number of passengers,” adds Vijayaraj.
The Madras High Court had last month directed the Transport Department to take action against auto-rickshaws flouting safety norms and Vijayaraj is positive that the Chennai Traffic Police is doing what is necessary.
“This month, we have intercepted 400 overloaded vehicles across the city and warned them,” said a transport department official. The officials state that they first start off with a warning. Repeat offenders are issued show-cause notice and their permit gets cancelled.
The size of the share-autos, of ‘Ape model’ is slightly bigger than the conventional autos that run in the city. This comes in handy for their owners to make minor modifications to accommodate up to 10, sometimes 12 passengers, beside two more on either side of the driver.
“These overcrowded autos are one of the main reasons for the city’s traffic problems. They occupy most of the carriage space at bus stops and force the buses to halt in the middle of the roads. They are also driven rashly and stopped at will without the drivers giving any signal,” says Mr. Ganesan (56), a resident of Perungudi.
Karuppuchamy, RTO Thiruvanmiyur says: “We impound such autos regularly and impose heavy fines on the owners. But the irony remains that these people pay the fine amounts, take back the vehicles and continue the same practice. The drivers have a strong union association and protest against the actions initiated by Transport Department whenever we take some steps against them.
According to All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) Share-Autorickshaw Drivers’ Union President, S Elumalai, “The transport officials should allow permit to their association members to carry at least six passengers, otherwise they may not be able to make any profits. “Since these autos provide employment to many, it is high time they were recognised as there is a huge demand for share-autorickshaws in the city,” he adds.
“Since the move to set things right by punishing the erring auto drivers did not evoke the desired response, the Transport Department conducted a drive in February to sensitise the passengers by prominently painting the number of permitted capacity on the vehicles itself. But that too did not yield any result,” said Transport Commissioner, Vijayaraj.
“What we see today is that share-auto drivers and passengers have jointly created a new kind of transport system that does not find place in the statute books. It is a system created out of necessity. It can only be regulated, not eradicated,” said Chennai based lawyer S. Muthukumar.
“If the MTC is going to fix the charge at Rs. 7 for travelling as short a distance as one kilometer, people will naturally shun buses and prefer share-autos since it works out cheaper for travelling longer distances,” added Muthukumar.
Motivated by the strategy adopted by share-autos, small buses of the MTC have started stopping in front of apartment complexes, shopping malls and IT companies to attract more passengers.
“As share-autos are not allowed to halt at bus stops, they have started picking up passengers near residential and commercial complexes. MTC is also contemplating halting the buses in front of Egmore and Chennai Central railway stations for the benefit of travellers,” said MTC Asst. Director, (Public Relations) Tamil Selvarajam.
Though commuters are happy about the move, they feel share-autos will continue to be popular until the number of small buses is increased. “Nobody wants to wait for a bus for more than five minutes, especially in the hot sun,” said J. Umashankar, a resident of Medavakkam.
The Transport Department’s recent drive to screen autorickshaws and fine those not using their meters or the revised rate cards, has resulted in many of the illegal vehicles getting impounded.
“The city has many illegal share-autos, some of which brazenly flout traffic norms but continue to ply due to their popularity among commuters,” said Prabhakara Rao (34), a resident of Gandhinagar.
Even though most commuters say that share-autos have become an essential part of the city’s transport system, they continue to use the system with a lot of grievances. “Most of the share-autos are crowded and cause inconvenience,” added Rao.
Sekar, one of the office-bearers of AITUC union of the drivers, said that the lack of unity among the members was the reason for poor communication between them and the government. “Ultimately the commuters suffer,” he said.
“The restriction of five passengers in a share-auto is not possible to enforce as people want us to take them,” said P. Vasu, a share-auto driver. “Even if we refuse, the commuters request us to take them because of the demands of rush hour and the inefficiency of public transport,” he added.
The share-auto drivers admit that there were accidents because of overcrowding but cite the lack of other transport requirements as the reason for overcrowding. “If the need is adequately addressed by the State-run transport system, overcrowding would reduce,” said S. Shankar, a driver.
When the system was launched in the city a few years ago, it was used by people who had to cover shorter distances but did not want to shell out money on the regular autorickshaws. “Now it has become a reliable mode of transport for many like us despite a relatively higher degree of risk,” said B. Murugan, a regular commuter of share-autos from Injambakkam to Siruseri.
Investigative Project submitted in partial fulfilment of the post-graduate diploma course in Journalism at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.
For the Academic Year 2015 – 2016
Name: Mohammad Affanul Haque
Roll No.: PGDJ15092
Mentor: VK Raghunathan