Of civil action and auto-rickshaws

Well, Chennai is hot. Smeltering hot. That’s not so bad in itself, but, I had to be in it for two days. And my primary mode of transport was auto-rickshaws, and so, as Ali would say, “Oh blimey.”

Now anyone who’s gone to Chennai knows the highway robbery and pillage that is the auto-rickshaw system. (It’s worse than Bangalore, if such a thing is possible.) Now, my mother tongue is Tamil, and in spite of living my life as a youngling in Kerala, I know how madly these rickshaw fellows love Rajni and all that, but that didn’t stop them from trying their hand at looting my money. The extortion ranges from charging 2x to 5x. I kid you not.

I wasn’t the one to let go, however. After getting ripped a couple of times, I perfected the strategy of the flat-rate fare. I refused to get into any rickshaw that charged more than Rs. 25 for 2 kms (which in itself is over-priced, but what the hell, I couldn’t do anything about it, and I’d be there only for a couple of days). Here’s how the conversation would go:

  • Rickie (which is what we’ll call our friendly neighborhood auto-rickshaw driver): Enga ponam saar? (Where do you want to go, sir?)
  • Me: Nungumbakkam, evalau? (To Nungumbakkam, how much?)
  • Rickie: 80 rupees, saar
  • Me: WHAT? 25. Are you coming or not?

At this point, 20% of rickies would smirk and ask me to get lost. Fair enough. Here’s how it would go for the rest of them.

  • Rickie: Enna saar, anyayama sollarengo. (What is this sir, you’re quoting an unfair amount.)
  • Me: 25. Varengala, illaya? (25. Are you coming, or not?)
  • Rickie: 50 kudungo saar. (Give 50, sir.)
  • Me: 25. Veena time waste pannathengo. 25. (25. Don’t waste my time. 25.)

At this point, 50% of the remaining 80% rickies would just drive away, swearing under their breath. For the remaining 50%:

  • Rickie: 35 kundungo. (Give 35)
  • Me (almost shouting at this point, for effect): TWENTY FIVE.
  • Rickie: Seri saar, 5 rupees extra kudungo. 30. (Ok sir, give me 5 rupees more. 30.)

At this point, depending on my level of patience, the time-sensitivity of my appointment, and other cheerful factors like the angular momentum of Jupiter, I’d give in and go with 30. Else, the story would go on till we hit 25. Note however, that the time required to go from 30 to 25 is the proverbial last mile. It takes as much shouting and bargaining as bringing it from X to 30.

(I also noticed an arguably understandable phenomenon. When I was dressed in formals, carried a folder and had no stubble on, the initial asking rate went up by Rs. 30-50. So inversely, if I were drunk, wore torn clothes, and spoke with a slur, maybe they’ll charge me reasonably?)

Democracy is kind of sad. It purpotedly gives people the power, but guess what, people are least bothered to use it. All we can do is sit and bitch about the notorious, money mongering drivers–those bastards–over dinner at a relative’s place, but to move our collective asses into action in demanding our own civil rights–not a single soul is prepared to do it. Talk about moral hypocrisy.

It’s cute as long as there are economic trickle-down effects. But there are more serious undercurrents. The very fact that one of the major transport services in a major metro in India can be like this is proof of middle-class apathy. We are not bothered. We are not even indignant. I’m afraid, then, that we fully deserve the kind of shit that happens to us.

All it takes, really, is to file a complaint with the Consumer Courts. Even online. Overcharging for services like transport is a civil offence under the Consumer Protection Act, and plying without a meter is an offence too. Ten complaints, followed up, is probably enough to do the trick. That’s it. 10 lousy complaints from a nation of a billion. These rickshaw-wallas can be taken to task. But do we want to take the trouble to fight for our rights? No! This is the second-best example of hypocrisy.

We don’t need a Gandhi; all we need is 1,000 souls, each doing one-thousandth of what Gandhi did: care for the country.

(Now, astute readers will be quick to point out that I am not doing anything in particular either. I confess that I’m nothing more than an armchair activist. When I had the time, I didn’t have the knowledge (that civil action is possible) and now, when I have the knowledge, I am not going to be where I can do it from.)

But well, Bangalore is about ten degrees cooler, and that partly makes up for it.

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