Kicking a plume of smoke behind him, he eases into the parking spot, taking care to slow down and put a safe distance between his vehicle and the one in front of him before killing the engine. Jumping out and smoothening his shirt, he watches on expectantly, hoping someone would walk up to his vehicle and hop on, even for a short distance. Disappointment briefly colours his face as he finds nobody paying him any heed, so he settles on the stairs of the popular fast-food restaurant adjacent to the auto stand with others like himself.
It is almost 8 pm now; he knows it is time to go home. Crestfallen, he stands up again to start his engine, only turning momentarily to bid his companions goodbye for the night. It is like clockwork, this routine. Such is the life of one Mr Suresh, who has been driving auto-rickshaws for nearly 30 years now.
He says: “Things have been really difficult at home now because of the pandemic. Our earnings have fallen to almost how they were 20 years ago but the prices of everything else have been rising. There is no business for us; we are helpless.”
Auto-rickshaw drivers have been facing tough times due to a fall in earnings during the pandemic. Credits: Udbhavi Balakrishna/NSoJ
What is the issue?
When it first hit, the pandemic brought all life to a standstill. The first couple of months of uncertainty about the virus meant that there was no movement on the streets, except for rampant fake news that seemed to always make its rounds quite easily. The government-imposed lockdown meant that people couldn’t go to work or school, much less travel anywhere within the city. This, for a city dependent on local transport like auto-rickshaws and cabs, was crippling. As months passed, the government eased restrictions and people learnt to adjust to the sudden changes. Yet, auto and cab services remained one of the worst-hit sectors.
Mohammad Naushad Hussain, an auto driver from RT Nagar, used to be an electrician and welder working for Micron Electricals, a company that had to let go of many employees during the pandemic. He says: “Many employees from eastern states like Bihar and Odisha were asked to return to their hometowns. Senior employees were being paid only 50% of their salary. We used to spend between Rs. 6000-7000 for petrol each month travelling to Whitefield, Marathahalli and Sarjapur but were getting paid only half of our original salary. How were we to sustain our families, pay rent and feed ourselves with just that much?”
After losing his job at the beginning of the lockdown, he became a vegetable vendor but the government-imposed time restrictions of selling between 6-10 am didn’t help. “I started to ferry patients for free in my auto. I felt fulfilled doing this so I’ve continued despite many problems,” Naushad says.
No movement, no money.
Auto drivers’ woes have been increasing despite reassurances of support by the government. The livelihoods of these auto drivers depend solely on the movement of people but the subsequent lockdowns and restrictions imposed by the state government hampered their single source of income.
Sathivel, a driver who has been driving in and around Yeshwanthpur for nearly 8 years, says: “Since the pandemic began, the movement of people has decreased drastically. From the time I pulled out my auto-rickshaw at 6:30 this morning, I’ve only earned about Rs. 440. I have to pay Rs. 200 as rent for the vehicle and pay Rs. 300 for gas. I have spent extra money from my pocket. What should I take home?”
A dejected Sathivel looks on. Credits: Udbhavi Balakrishna/NSoJ
“Everything has become expensive.”
Earning a livelihood with such volatility of income hasn’t been easy, thanks to rising fuel prices. The Economic Times has reported that as of September 11, 2021, the price of petrol stands at Rs. 104.70 per litre in Bengaluru, remaining stable since last week. Diesel prices have remained at Rs. 94.04 per litre in the city since September 7, 2021, whereas the price of CNG per litre has risen to Rs. 57 per kilogram, according to the drivers themselves. Driving for a daily income has thus become a double-edged sword for most auto-rickshaw drivers since they are tempted to travel longer distances for more trips to earn better in a day but are compelled to direct these meagre earnings towards refilling fuel for their vehicles.
It also doesn’t help that there aren’t enough CNG-filling stations in Bengaluru, with most being located in the outskirts of the city, although that is slated to change. As reported in the Times of India, a company spokesperson from GAIL Gas said that there are 31 operational CNG-filling stations in the city and some more are set to be functional from this month. An additional 100 stations are in the pipeline and are likely to be set up in the next two to three years in Bengaluru Urban and Rural districts, she added.
Started as support, turned into a competition
Attractive pricing offered by cab aggregators such as Ola and Uber has led to a huge loss to the drivers that have steered clear of partnerships and agreements with them. More and more passengers prefer auto-rickshaws through these applications for better prices which has meant that these drivers who aren’t affiliated with either of these aggregators end up losing passengers. This has pushed many auto-rickshaw drivers to move to Ola and/or Uber to retain some of their passenger bases.
“It hasn’t been a major loss per se as it started off being a mutually beneficial partnership of profits on both sides. Ever since the pandemic, however, it has been difficult to earn even what we used to before the advent of such applications,” says Anand, an auto driver from Magadi Road.
Auto rickshaw drivers wait for pickup requests near Brigade Road. Credits: Udbhavi Balakrishna/NSoJ
Seeing how popular these applications had become, Suresh too installed them on his phone. But sometimes, he says, auto drivers do not receive the full online payment that is due. “Today (September 9, 2021) I had a ride where I was supposed to earn Rs. 120 but I was paid just Rs. 53. Out of the 53 rupees, I have to pay 20 rupees as commissions so my earnings were just 33 rupees. They make adjustments within the application and I don’t get anything sometimes,” he says.
Pre-COVID times were better, says Suresh, echoing what many drivers said.
Aslam Pasha, who has been driving auto-rickshaws in and around Koramangala and Brigade Road for nearly 25 years, has a different take on the popularity of the ride-hailing services. “The arrival of Ola and Uber in the city has ruined what little we used to earn. We need good smartphones to have the applications. For a poor man who barely earns enough to feed his family, where will this money come from? It is cruel,” he bemoans.
Now that the restrictions have eased a little, drivers are a little hopeful that their earnings will see significant improvement. Anand says that his situation has improved compared to last year, but not quite like pre-COVID times.
The government of Karnataka recognised this struggle for survival and announced monetary relief to sectors severely affected by the pandemic. But how has that fared?
Last year, in May 2020, the Karnataka government, led by erstwhile chief minister BS Yeddyurappa, had announced a Karnataka Driver Scheme which, among benefits to other hard-hit sectors, assured a one-time payment of Rs. 5000 to 7.75 lakh registered auto and taxi drivers in Karnataka. This was part of an economic package of Rs. 1610 crore that covered vendors, washermen, barbers and weavers, among others.
The same scheme was continued this year but with a compensation of Rs. 3000 instead of Rs. 5000. The scheme was to reach 2.10 lakh beneficiaries in a package of Rs. 63 crore.
Page 1 of the poster announcing the Karnataka Driver Scheme by the Government of Karnataka. Credits: pmmodiyojana.in
Eligibility criteria or exclusive policy?
Applicants had to apply online through the official Seva Sindhu Karnataka website. The requirements for drivers to avail of this one-time financial assistance payment included having a working bank account, a valid driver’s license, Aadhar Card, Voter ID Card, proof of residence in the form of a residence certificate, a Passport size photo, and a Vehicle Registration Certificate along with a registered transport driver proof.
However, only drivers who were long-term residents of Karnataka could apply for this scheme, which meant migrants from other states, who either started driving before the pandemic or were forced to get into this profession during the pandemic, had no relief. These drivers needed to also own the vehicles they drove, which wasn’t the case with many of them. “Everything is a scam, madam, nothing has reached those who truly need it because people in between put many regulations and swallow the money up,” says a driver who requested anonymity.
In June 2020, the Times of India reported how this scheme had not reached every beneficiary. Aimed to reach 7.75 lakh registered drivers, only 2.2 lakh drivers had been able to apply through the website. Hemantha Kumar L, the Additional Commissioner for Transport, said that many transactions failed because of inactive bank accounts and other technical issues.
This year’s scheme was to reach 2.1 lakh auto drivers but their unions claim that approximately only 1.5 lakh drivers have received the promised amount.
Some earned, some didn’t
Suresh was happy he earned both times but he knew many drivers who didn’t receive any relief amount, or worse, didn’t know about it at all.
“My sons helped me apply online after I read about it in the newspaper. If the required documents are alright, then people can avail them. Some people’s documents may be misplaced or have incorrect details, so they cannot avail any of the benefits,” says Anand.
Manjunath, an auto driver from Davangere, says: “I applied online on the Seva Sindhu website as soon as the Yeddyurappa government announced the scheme. I applied this year as well; I’ve been waiting but nothing has reached me yet.” Having driven for a total of 30 years, he began driving in Bengaluru about 12 years ago. Despite submitting the details of required documents in the online portal, nothing came out of it, he adds.
Some drivers have a look of surprise and confusion fill their faces at the mention of the scheme, having had no knowledge of the same. Aslam Pasha was one of them. Solemnly, he says, “It makes no difference because most such schemes don’t actually reach the people they are created for. What is the point of applying anyway?”
Aslam Pasha looks on, waiting for passengers near Residency road. Credits: Udbhavi Balakrishna/NSoJ
Where are the auto drivers’ unions when one needs them?
In these drivers’ words- nowhere to be seen when you need them. A common response heard among all the drivers has been that these unions haven’t reached out for any assistance or aid. Even if they do, only a few people benefit from it.
However, Mr Somashekhar, the president of Namma Chalakara Trade Union, says that the issue lies with the government as it has been of no help to drivers. “The transport department put unnecessary regulations and requirements for drivers to avail the benefits of the scheme, which meant many drivers couldn’t get the money.”
Namma Chalakara Trade Union, Nandhini Layout. Credits: Udbhavi Balakrishna/NSoJ
He insisted that for such schemes one needed to check only if the beneficiaries had a driver’s license, a badge that stated they drove a commercial vehicle, and a valid bank account. “The transport department has been fixating on money only, allowing other players to enter the business. This has ruined the auto-driving business and community. People have sold their vehicles to scrap shops for money instead.”
Just like many drivers who earned the relief payment, Mr Somashekhar says that the amount is nowhere near enough. “We are nearing the end of the year. Rs. 5000 is not a big amount at all. One trip to the grocers is enough for that to be spent. How can someone be expected to feed their family with that one-time payment?”
What needs to be done instead?
“Lack of awareness is a major problem we face,” he says. “Us people in the city use smartphones and access the internet, so we know what is up. But people who live in remote areas with poor connectivity may not know anything. We need to reach them. We don’t need empty performances for show.”
“Inspectors in the Regional Transport Offices (RTOs) in the state and their teams need to calculate the number of driver’s licences they have issued under them and check on those individuals to listen to their grievances and inform them about such important schemes,” he says. “There is a grave need for awareness and fieldwork, only that will change the current situation,” he emphasized.
This article was among the Best Capstone Projects done in September 2021 by the batch of UG '22