Automatic outrage

Chennai autorickshaw drivers are evil, greedy, and uncivil anti-social elements.

This statement seems to have more support in Chennai than both the Dravidan parties put together. It is also a frequent topic of discussion at most (well..middle class)  social gatherings. The interesting thing is (at least for me) that there is little or no debate. It is a simply a one-way rant. Chennai auto-drivers are scoundrels of the first (or even better..zeroth) order and that’s simply the end of the story. Since the unfortunate victims of this Chennai-wide badmouthing orgy are usually not invited to middle-class social gatherings to narrate their side of the story, I have decided to play Devil’s advocate. As people see it, they are the devils and I am their advocate. I enjoy taking unpopular positions and I dont mind being clobbered for being so obviously on the wrong side of the issue.

Let’s a first get a few things straight. Very rarely do I ever encounter an honest, transparent and law-abiding auto driver in Chennai. Just imagine my role as being a public prosecutor for a criminal who is not going to be able to attract any decent lawyer to defend him. All I am going to do is to ask some unasked questions and do my lawful duty by making an honest attempt to see things from the auto drivers’ perspective.

So let’s list down all the unquestionable “truths” about Chennai autos and see if they stand up to some semblance of scrutiny.

Auto drivers use a lot of disrespectful and foul language. 

Right. No debate about that. Chennai Tamil is not known for it’s politeness. But are we perhaps possibly dealing with a cultural difference here? An average Punjabi uses extremely profane curses as punctuation, prepositions and conjuctions (and the occasional interjection) on a day to day basis, but most people in North India do not take these curses literally. The day to day struggle of those below the middle class is expected to produce the occasional outburst of rudeness interspersed with the actual intended communication.

The point: Dont read more into the language than is necessary. Politeness and propriety are often linked with socio-cultural backgrounds. Germans are rude. Americans are brash. Brits are snobbish. Auto drivers are Madrasi. Like that.

Auto drivers are rude and uncouth

I know this is a little way-out, but have we ever stopped to consider how we behave with them? Do we all behave like angels? Or do we perhaps show a little bit of that age-old Indian class superiority (Caste..I am afraid is a bad word nowadays) when dealing with people who are, from an socio-economic standpoint, below us? Is it just possible, just a little, that a lot of us in the middle class are simply not used to “those sort of people” answering back or being assertive? Is there a slender possibility that we are part of this vicious circle of uncivility?

Auto drivers overcharge and do not respect government stipulated rates

Let’s ask this question. What is the “correct” rate for auto travel? How do we know that the government has not set ridiculously low rates, rates that keep the auto drivers in grinding poverty? Ah, I am pointed to the auto drivers of Mumbai or Pune, who are model citizens of the autorickshaw world. Why, I am asked, is it that they respect the meter and do not, in most cases, overcharge. Is it perhaps a case of the Chennai auto driver desiring slightly more than slum-level existence? Is he perhaps, slightly more empowered by decades of affirmative action ( the bengali M word )? Is it a case of us holding up the meek, unquestioning, oppressed, slum-dwelling Pune auto driver as a convenient paragon of sorts? A New york taxi cab driver makes 20 dollars for an average ride. An average chennai auto driver makes 30 rupees, while driving through nightmarish traffic. Just a thought.

Well…my arguments are really pretty lame and will not really hold up in a proper debate. There are several other dimensions to this issue that have not been touched upon. But then, I dont mean for these arguments to be some sort of a shield unscrupulous auto drivers can use to defend themselves. In this loud public tirade against those brown shirted men of Chennai, I just felt like saying a few words in their support.

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