Auto Shun Kar

The thoughtful bloggers at Metrobloggers urge the government to take stringent action on renegade auto drivers who fail to use recalibrated meters. Some of comments also urge a complete boycott of Chennai Autos till they “improve”.

As I stated in my earlier post here, a one-sided rant against the “disciples of Baasha” does not make for a meaningful debate. My intent here is to foster a slightly more thoughtful and nuanced discussion on this. Clearly, the present system does not work. Standalone Meter regulated fares will never work. They have never worked in the past in Chennai. Auto drivers will always find a way to “heat” them up. So it is important to realize that there are 3 forces at play in this game. (The game is defined as the “negotiation” between prospective commuter and the auto driver)

  1. The fare that the commuter is willing to pay
  2. The fare that the auto driver is willing to expect

One of the problems is that the commuter does his calculations based on

  1. An assumption that the auto driver is anyway likely to state an inflated fare
  2. The amount he can afford based on his average earnings etc
  3. An approximate idea of general economic inflation, government approved meter rates etc

While the auto driver does his calculations based on

  1. The percentage of the fare that he will, in any case, have to pay as “mamool” to corrupt policemen
  2. His understanding of inflation and prices of petrol etc
  3. His estimation of
    1. how well off the commuter is
    2. how urgent is the commuter need
  4. His desire to lead a life at a level above that of slum-level existence.

In this sort of an unbalanced game, I am just wondering if we should apply a free market model to autos. Of course, we will have to solve the problem of police ownership and cartels, but I think, a variable pricing model could work moderately better than what we have today. We accept variable pricing in a lot of situations – property rates, airline tickets, tatkal railway tickets etc. So how about a three tiered model of

  • basic autos – with low end fares
  • Mid-tier autos
  • Luxury autos

The numbers of each one of them will be determined by actual demand. Further, a series of call-centres (kind of like the Call-taxi model) that log all auto journeys (start distance, end distance) and also monitor the legality of the meters. Auto drivers should also rotate between the three tiers to make the system fair for everybody. Where the government can play a role is to pay some sort of a monthly stipend to auto drivers that will go a long way to improve their lot and potentially reduce their desperation to cheat and fleece. How will the government pay for this? We could consider a per fare tax on mid-tier and luxury autos that the government earns.

Of course, this system could have its own problems. But lets talk about them and try to fix them.

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