Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Auto Nightmare of Kerala

I sometimes wonder why the atmosphere in Kerala is so charged with hostility. Is there something wrong with us Keralites? Or am I being overcritical about our own state and people? You know a case of grass being greener on the other side?

Do we need to change?

This hostility – I see this everywhere. But a sector where it is tangible, palpable is that of the autorichshaw service in Cochin and Mid-Travancore districts.

As a working woman who does not use her own vehicle, I used to depend a lot on autorickshaws. I once engaged an auto from the railway station in a small town in Mid-Travancore. As we approached the destination, the ride became bumpy – in more sense than one. The road was full of gutters and the driver became more and more angry with every inch of the distance we covered. And abusive too. At one point he turned around and snarled at me, demanding to know why I hadn’t warned him about the road. I told him meekly that I hadn’t been aware of the condition of the road. Just then I spotted my colleague to whom I was to hand over a parcel. She was standing at her gate. I gave her the parcel without alighting from the auto. Seeing the autowallah’s ferocious expression, she looked at me with raised eyebrows.
“Get down, have a cup of coffee.”
“No”, I said. “Have a lecture now”
“OK”, she said, looking uneasy.

And the return journey started. He continued his offensive. Nasty, foul, insulting tirade against me continued till we reached the gate of the college where I worked. I got down and asked him,
”How much?” I knew how much that distance would cost but thought I’d pay him for the damage to the vehicle he had been harping on in the course of his ranting. He switched off the motor, leaned back in the seat, looked at me venomously and retorted
“How much do you think?”
“This distance would usually cost me twenty rupees. But I’ll give you what you want because of the road condition”
He stepped out of his auto, his body language like that of the Undertaker in WWW, and sneered
“You people. What do you care about us? After the petrol and maintenance, we get nothing out of this business”.

I could feel my temper rising. I wanted to tell him the road was not my fault, his business was none of my concern. He should learn to talk more politely and that he was behaving like a barbarian. But I said nothing of the sort, ‘cos we were outside the college gate and I didn’t want my students to see me getting into an argument that was bound to be devoid of dignity. I took out thirty rupees, but he wouldn’t accept the money till he had had his say.

My iron control snapped. To date, I am happy I did what I did instead of indulging in a shouting match. I got back into the auto, and told him to take the auto to the Police Control room. That brought him to his senses for I could see a startled expression cross his face fleetingly. Then he changed his tactics. He turned to a passer-by and started a sob sob tale about the woes of an auto driver and how people like me added to his miseries. I was astounded. What on earth is he trying to do, I wondered.

Fortunately for me, the passer-by happened to be a casual employee in my college. His name was Martin. I asked him to get into the auto to go to the Police station. “You can be a witness”, I said, “Not that I need a witness in this case”. Martin instantly obliged. Our man stood there for a moment looking at us. Then,
“Get down”, he said gruffly. He looked at me and asked, “You admit we too have to live, eh?”

Was he trying to offer an explanation for his behaviour? Anyway, if he was, it made no sense to me. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t understand how I stood in the way of him and his livelihood.

I stared at him, trying to keep my face as expressionless as possible. I didn’t trust myself to speak.

By then, there was a small audience which embarrassed me. Mine was a familiar face in those parts.

And then Rev. Sr. M, my colleague, appeared from somewhere and asked me what the confusion was all about.
“This gentleman has been insulting me from the moment the auto turned into the road leading to Mina’s house. He hasn’t yet stopped. If this is not harassment, what is?”
“But Ammey (That’s how the nuns are addressed), that road was terrible”, butted in that auto driver.
“But why do you insult this teacher for it?”
“I wasn’t insulting”, he lied. “I told her, most courteously, that the road was bad and it was she who started yelling at me!!!!!???” And then very triumphantly
“It’s her word against mine!”

I was furious. “Are you going to take the auto to the Police station. We’ll settle the matter there”, I told him. He didn’t move. I asked Martin to go into the College office and phone for the Police (This happened before the cell phone became common).
Rev. Sr. M intervened. “Leave it, Molly”, she said.
“No. I’ll see that he never drives an auto again – at least not in the near future.”

Apparently, the auto driver had no nexus with the Police,’cos he turned to Sister M and said “What does she want to harm a poor helpless auto driver like me for?”

By then, I realized that I had become the villain of the piece with a section of the small audience. A few autos that were passing by had stopped and the drivers joined the crowd to watch the drama.

My resolve crumbled for some reason. All I wanted was to get away from there and get to work. And Rev Sister M was so persuasive. “File a complaint, and it’ll be a big pulivalu (meaning it’ll be like holding the tiger by the tail). It’ll drag on. You’ll have to keep going to the court. Do you have the time for it? And then that clinching question. “Is it worth it?”

I asked Martin to settle the fare with him, got out of the auto and walked into the college without a backward glance.

But the episode spoilt my day. Left such a dirty taste in my mouth.

I haven’t been able to figure out why the man behaved like that. This incident is but one of the many many unpleasant brushes I have had with the autowallahs in Kerala. Being left with no choice, I have learnt to take it in my stride. I have learnt to deal with it. If I am charged four times the actual fare, I pay it, knowing fully well I am being cheated. If they refuse to be engaged because the distance is too short for the kill, I move on and look for the next auto, and the next and the next - - . That’s much easier than hauling him over the coals; it's much easier than belligerently asking him why the government has issued license to him. or reminding him that I can bring him to justice, if I so wished. This way, I can keep my BP normal.

But I don’t stop wondering - Why do they treat the passengers so shabbily? Why do they look upon them with such hatred and enmity?

I sometimes get the feeling that they take an instant dislike to anyone who earns a livelihood doing anything other that driving autos. And if the passenger happens to be a woman – and a working one at that- they throw all pretence of civility to the winds.

God’s Own Country.


  1. That was a very infuriating post. However, I would like to say here that the hostility is not a specialty of mallu auto wallahs. In fact I would even go on to say that auto wallahs in Kerala are much more reasonable than their counterparts in other states.
    I'm not saying your experience is an isolated one. But compared to the experiences I have faced in Hyderabad, Kerala is indeed far far better.

    Once I was coming back from a multiplex some time around midnight. The distance at 1.5 times the metre rate would have cost me 150 Rs. And this bugger was asking me 300. When I said I cannot give that and turned to leave he caught my hand and threatened that he is from old Hyderabad and that I have no idea what he could do to me.

    I tried to shake away my hand from his grip and then this rogue uses his other hand to get hold of me.
    Mustering all the courage I had, I told him let us go to the police station which was 5 kms away. Immediately he says 'come let us go' and starts the auto. And then I realize he can as well take me to an isolated area and attack me with a knife/iron rod. In the end I shouted out loud to my room mates on the third floor as we were in front of our apartment. In the end we paid him 200 rupees.

    There have been cases where people who were traveling alone were manhandled and robbed off their money. I have even heard auto wallahs abusing women in hindi.. oh and when I say abuse it means the dirtiest levels of abuse.

    And they go unchecked here. Minimum charge at hitec city (where all these companies are located) is 30 to 40 rupees, however short the distance.

    Oh.. I can go on and on.
    My colleagues (girls) from Bangalore tells me how auto wallahs 'flash' their assets at them when they travel alone.

    And hence, although unruly, I'd say Kerala auto wallahs are much better off compared to their counterparts in other places.

    Of course I'm speaking from my limited experience.

  2. Atleast in Kerala behaviour of auto rickshaw drivers drastically vary across cities...I have seen exceptionally well behaved guys in calicut..had several nasty experiences in trivandrum and once in changanacherry...

    After working in mysore I have seen worse there actually..folks who gherao if you try to board a rickshaw which offers to go on the right fare...9 kms..and they charge 150 bucks...atleast in tvm people at the most charge an extra 5 bucks..

    The incident you have mentioned is typical of few drivers back home..the victim being made the villian is the oldest trick of em..

  3. Am I familiar with this scenario or not! I use an auto at least once everyday and I have seen all kinds of them. Some are extremely nice before they charge 3 times the meter-charge, others are impassive but show a fair hand in money - recently before the minimum rate was not officially 12, when most autowallahs already started charging 12, one fellow said "10" and I asked "but isnt the minimum charge 12?" and he said "No thats not official yet".

    After announcing totally unreasonable charges, and when you make the mistake of asking "err how come" you get to hear a volley of stories about petrol charge hike and what not. An acquaintance after paying once said "Chetta, ithinu anubavikum (you will pay for this)". The autowala was afraid if this may be a curse and gave her back the extra money.

  4. In my part of the State I get a better behaviour from the Auto drivers.Being a doc helps.In general what I feel is when you go North in our State human behaviour especially to strangers become better.

  5. Bangalore auto drivers are by far the worst lot. Ask any unfortunate person who has committed the mistake of landing in madiwala early morning. They will come to u like a bunch of bees, and charge you 5 times the actual rate. If you say no, u get to hear nice 'Kannada' music.

  6. @ all
    yes, i know that north of kerala, auto drivers are fact auto drivers in calicut are exemplary.
    cris- u r right. there are some very polite and conscientiooos autodrivers too - during a recent visit to kochin, i was pleasantly surprised to discover this. the new generation autowallahs i guess.
    @ mathew,-trivandrum is not bad-it was once upon a time. but things have changed for the better.the setting of my story is changanasserry!
    Deepak- scary. am i glad to have been in kerala during my auto days!and the B'lore tales-absolutely shocking. wonder how people get away with it.
    @ charakan - the magic of the steth!
    was planning a post on a doc in the govt hospital (Part 2 of my earlier post'am i my brothers keeper?'). decided against it when i realised there is a doc among my blog visitors.

  7. @ ajit
    mebbe it has something to do with the occupation.p'haps it's lucrative on somedays and zero income on otherdays - and this uncertainty makes them so aggressive?

  8. There is something called as meter in the rick. Wasn't it turned ON into the start position when you got in?

  9. @ anrosh
    Metre? in kerala? apparently, you are not from kerala

  10. Ive had the fortune/misfortune of having had auto rides in most parts of the country. AS far as kerala goes i feel Trivandrum is pretty decent, as its one of the very few places where a meter actually is used, although very often the actual fare that you need to dish out might be a 5 rupee more than what the meter shows.
    But undoubtedly the best experiences I've had is in Mumbai. An autowallah actually dropped me and my parents who had come here for a visit a distance of around 3 kms and refused to take money saying that he was going that way anyways. And rarely have i had to even haggle with an autowallah, instead take out what the meter reads and walk away.

  11. @KPJ - Its definitely not the uncertainty, coz Bangalore autos get at least 5 times more than what an auto driver gets in kerala. Most of them earn more than white collar govt servants. Moreover I think they can never be aggressive if they are desperate. Its the greed which makes them aggressive.

  12. Hi, you have to come and see the pain we go through everyday in Bangalore with Auto drivers. Everyday I think that oh, how good it was to travel by autos in Trivandrum..! But in Trivandrum, I also used to crib. Bangalore auto wallahs are the most un-reasonable. You are bound to give triple charges if you look like a working woman, and if you have a laptop with you, four times the charge!
    Even the police don't bother here. That way our state is far better...

  13. Oh! I agree with VMJ.. Mumbai is the best. Went there for a short trip of four days. There is nothing like 1.5 times metre after ten o clock at least in the place I stayed (Belapur). Also all the autos/taxis we took were strictly going by metre.

  14. I have felt the B'lore autowalas are the worst. They never come for the ride (except if your place is near their home !!) or they will ask double or triple fares. My home and office is just 4 kms and mostly I walk coz it is too tough to get an auto. There are times when I'm too tired to walk and have ended up waiting for 1.5-2 hours without any luck(no exaggeration). Also asking double n triple fares are so common. And if it is railway station and you have one big bag, you can do multiples of it.Once I was asked Rs.180 for a Rs.10 distance(1.5 km). Compared to all these I find autowalas in kerala very amiable (I know only Thrissur autowala's but).But may be different regions the behavior is different.

  15. it's sad! as a reader, even im feeling agitated after reading the post. but then, i know this isn't something which is specific to kerala. i've seen auto drivers like this in more than one indian cities. and i've seen atleast half the number of good ones too as much as ive come across bad ones. so, i guess it's more about the 'person' in question, than his profession.

  16. No probs.Go ahead with your post on docs. Criticism welcome.btw where is that earlier post you mentioned?

  17. @ charakan

    title:am i my brother's keeper.

  18. my advice: take a bus, walk rest of the way...

    cheaper, faster(sometimes), and green

    may not apply to everyone, cuz some places u do need an auto

  19. Funny to see people defending Kerala auto drivers so earnestly. No one has offered any explanation to that drivers behavior. Typical trait of most Keralite bloggers. They have nothing to say at their blogs nor do they anything to offer at others.

  20. the main reason i still take buses - coz i don't have the strength to argue! worse than what they charge is what you have to hear if you even slightly protest!

  21. Gosh! that autodriver must be crazy. Agreed they have their own difficulties but that doesn't mean they can cheat common people and resort to antics as you mentioned. Sad part is most of us choose not to argue or we're left helpless and have to give in to their exorbitant demands.
    Trust me nothing like B'lore autodrivers. Morons they are. At the same time I have also met some good autowallahs who left me astounded. I've had innumerable unforgettable agonizing experiences that made me resolve " I'll enter an auto in Bangalore only if its a matter of life and death". If at all they agree to go on meter charge, the damned machine starts ticking at a rate faster than your heartbeat. Sigh* the bad experiences outnumber the good ones.
    Trust me auto drivers in Calicut left me speechless. No extra, the minimum was still Rs.10, two months back. There was speculation about increase in the fare at that time. When asked about the newly introduced fares the reply was," It will actually cause a loss. The number of people who travel by autos will reduce. The increased fares will not compensate for the loss in terms of number of customers".

  22. I had lot of bad xperiances when i was in Trivandrum. I used to wonder, for what all reasons, they ask extra money. Even if they have meter, they mostly ask double or at times triple. The worst part is if you are new to a place and choose autorikshaw as the transport, then they will take you through the longest and bad route possible and you will end up giving double money.

  23. @ anrosh
    Metre? in kerala? apparently, you are not from kerala

    lol..This summarizes it all :)


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