Saturday, May 12, 2007

Three cheers

The autorickshaw turns 50 this year. This common man’s transport has seen several incarnations since its first version rolled out of a shed in suburban Bombay in 1957. Shiv Kumar traces the many journeys — some smooth, some rough — of the three-wheeler, a uniquely Indian contraption.

Born from the union of a resurgent Germany after World War II and an India just past the first flush of freedom, the autorickshaw today symbolises frugal engineering at its best. Three wheels powered by a four-stroke 175-CC engine wrapped in a cheap tin body and a rexine roof, the autorickshaw has emerged as a low-cost form of public transport. Known as Tuk-Tuks in Thailand, autorickshaws in the Indian subcontinent or simply Bajajs in Indonesia, the auto has evolved into a favoured mode of transport.

Old models still ply in parts of Punjab
Old models still ply in parts of Punjab

Crystal-encrusted auto from Thailand
Crystal-encrusted auto from Thailand

Birth of auto

A brainchild of the late N K Firodia, the earliest autos were desi versions of the German Tempo Hanseat three-wheeler. The vehicle became completely Indianised after the German manufacturer Vidal & Sohn Tempo Werke ceased to exist. The first of the autos rolled out towards the end of 1957 under the banner of the Bachchraj Trading Corporation before the company was renamed Bajaj Auto. According to corporate lore, the term ‘autorickshaw’ was coined by N K Firodia as an improvement over the manual rickshaws in many parts of the country. The government initially licensed the company to make 1000 autos a year.

The Firodias who were in partnership with the Bajajs since Independence stayed together till the early 1970s when the second generation of the two families pulled apart. While Rahul Bajaj took control of Bajaj Auto and the flagship auto business, the Firodias took control of Bajaj Tempo which manufacturers four-wheelers. Though Bajaj Tempo, now renamed Force Motors, still manufactures three-wheelers, it could never match up to a resurgent Bajaj Auto in the auto business.

Bad blood still runs between the Bajajs and the Firodias. When the Firodias renamed Bajaj Tempo as Force Motors last year, Rahul Bajaj kicked up a storm. With the feud still simmering both companies are playing down the 50th anniversary of the auto.

Design change

With the auto’s growing popularity over the decades, its design of the vehicle has undergone a sea change. From the snout-nosed front-engined wobbler, the auto has become ergonomic with a rear engine and is efficient in fuel consumption. The newest generation of autos runs on compressed natural gas (CNG). The four-stroke engine is less polluting than its predecessor.

In the 50 years since the first auto rolled out, the number of vehicles on the road has increased manifold. Bajaj Auto alone sold 2,37,198 vehicles in the first nine months of 2006-07 as against 1,79,368 autos during the same period the year before. The company claims 78 per cent of the marketshare in the three-wheeler passenger segment. The company exported 55 per cent or 1,01,512 autos during the same period.

Globally speaking

India-made autos are found in Guatemala, Peru, Mexico and Egypt. In Latin America, the three-wheelers are called mosca or mosquitoes for their ability to noisily weave in and out of crowded roads. Compared to Indians, people of Thailand have found more innovative uses for the auto. Of a Japanese ancestry, the Tuk-Tuk, as it is known in that country, is used as an open-air vehicle for sightseeing tourists. Resembling a golf cart, it comes with air-conditioning and televisions fitted inside. Some police departments also use modified versions as a patrol vehicle.

After being phased out from Europe in the 1960s, the auto has now returned to Britain. In 2006, a British entrepreneur of subcontinental origin, Dominic Ponniah, introduced the vehicle in Brighton and Hove. According to an entry in the Wikipedia, the three-wheelers run on a fixed single route, and stop only at designated stops. The route runs along the seafront from Brighton Marina in the east, to Hove in the west with a diversion along West Street to Brighton railway station and back.

Sport racing

Auto racing as an extreme sport is kicking off big time in India. Last year, Chennai-based entrepreneur Aravind Bremanandam kicked off the first-ever official rickshaw competition. His efforts on the Internet resulted in 43 drivers from around the world signing up.

The Chennai to Kanyakumari rally, covering 1000 km, took eight days to complete. On the final day, the autos sputtered across the finish line in various states of disrepair.

Although a Hungarian team arrived first, a British husband-and-wife duo raked up the most points. Bremanandam presented them with a modest prize: a chrome-plated fender bearing the Indian Autorickshaw Challenge logo. Next on the agenda is a Mumbai-Goa Xpress rally in August this year.

Auto deluxe

One Indore-based auto owner has made it to international television after he spruced up the three-wheeler with a television, DVD player and daily newspapers.

Driver Rajkumar Kaushal told an international television channel that doing up his vehicle was his idea of living it up. "Since the time I’ve been driving a vehicle, I’ve had a desire to do it up. When I had the money, I bought a new vehicle and put in facilities for my customers like a phone, a TV, a CD player, and magazines."

Compiled with inputs from wikipedia, and

Solar driven

A Bangalore-based inventor, Syed Ahmad, has come up with a solar-powered auto, thanks to funding from the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, and the UNDP’s Small Grants Programme. The vehicle cost him Rs 1 lakh to build and needs more work to be done before it can run entirely on solar power. Till Ahmad can rustle up some more money, he will demonstrate his vehicle on the streets of Bangalore. According to the inventor, the solar auto will run up to 50 km at 25 kmph on a single charge, extending to 100 km a day with intermittent recharges and solar back-up.

Bumpy ride
Vibha Sharma | New Delhi

The number of people dependent upon autos in Delhi can be judged by the fact that on any given day close to 10 lakh persons use their services. As per Nyay Bhoomi activist Rakesh Aggarwal, who has been working with and for auto drivers for a long time, there are about 52,000 autos in Delhi. Over 10,000 are not on roads because they are either under maintenance or have gone for some clearance to the Transport Department. But the remaining 40,000 plus make 10-12 trips and carry close to 25 persons on an average daily, he says. So, autowallahs in Delhi are an entity ou cannot live with and also cannot live without.

Petrol to CNG

In 2000, after the two-stroke engine was replaced with the four-stroke CNG engine, problems faced by auto drivers increased. Financers appeared on the scene. These financers bought autos from original owners. So, while the autos remained in the names of original drivers, they actually got into the hands of financers, thereby giving rise to the problems of overcharging, and misbehaviour. "The maintenance cost of the vehicle run by CNG is much more than the one powered by petrol or diesel," says Som Nath, president of the Taxi Auto Rickshaw Drivers Sangharsh Samiti.

"The rise in fares has not been proportionate to the increase in the CNG costs. Besides this, most of the autos are owned by financers and are rented out to drivers for anything between Rs 250 and Rs 500, depending upon the duration. Therefore, an average driver is hardly able to earn much," he says.

Corruption, fuelled by officials and touts of unions, is rife in the Transport Department. Rakesh says that an auto which costs Rs 1.25 lakh actually sells for close to Rs 3.40 lakh in Delhi because here you can own an auto only if you have a permit. The country’s showcase — the Delhi Metro — has not been able to control the burgeoning vehicular traffic in Delhi, says Som Nath, adding that despite the problems they face, commuters in Delhi really don’t have much choice except autos.

Hard to survive today
Kanchan Vasdev | LudhianaHarbans Singh beside his prized possession

He claims he’s the first auto driver of Ludhiana who introduced the "polluting menace" to the industrial city way back in 1982. After retirement from the Indian Army, Harbans Singh could not think of any other job avenue when he saw auto drivers doing brisk business in Delhi. "I was just 45 at that time. Pension was too meagre for a family man with three kids to rear. I decided driving an autorickshaw was the only solution. So my friend Baba Chattarpati and I pooled in resources and bought an auto for Rs 7500 from Delhi," says Harbans Singh, now 70, who married off two sons and a daughters with the money earned by driving the vehicle through the city roads for over 25 years.

Harbans Singh beside his prized possession

"Those were the good old days. Baba and I would park our vehicle under a peepal tree in Model Town and commuters would come looking for us to reach their destinations fast. Now in this cut-throat competition, it is hard to survive. And then the police and other authorities have to be pleased," he rues. According to him, the number of autos increased by hundreds after the 1984 riots. Many families from riot-ridden areas settled in Ludhiana and they earned their livelihood by running autos.

Harbans Singh has sold off two autos and purchased the third one a year ago. He is well aware of the pollution caused by them but refuses to be a part of the solution. "I cannot do anything. I am 70. You never know when my body will stop working properly. I spent my life well with my auto. Rest is up to the government and the new drivers," he says, shrugging off the CNG proposal for the city. "The Delhi people came here after CNG. Where would we go?" he asks.

Hooked to the road
Aruti Nayar | ChandigarhBaldev Singh

In front of Fun Republic in Manimajra, the haunt of the young and rocking, sits under the tree Baldev Singh, one of the oldest autorickshaw drivers in Chandigarh. He came to the city in 1963 from Jalandhar and as a 16-year-old started driving an auto in the fledgling city. As he says, "Petrol was then 70 paise per litre and the fare varied between 12 annas and Re 1".

Baldev Singh has been driving an auto for 44 yrs

He has been a witness to the fledgling city growing and taking wings. Even though Chandigarh has grown in size and is a happening place, not much has changed for him even after 44 years.

If anything from an auto he owned, he has one on rent. At that time there were only three autorickshaw stands, recalls Baldev, one at the PGI and the other two at the Nagla village (Sector 27) and the Sector 17 bus stand. For 16 years, Baldev used to ferry passengers from the bus stand before shifting base to Manimajra which was a village that he saw turn into the NAC area. The shopping malls came up before his eyes as did the swanky outlets and eateries but his lot got worse. Except for a house in Indira Colony, he has not acquired much over these four decades. His son earns his livelihood as a painter because he never wished that he should ply an auto. His daughter, after doing a course in nursing, is employed in a hospital and lives in Ajmer with her banker husband. That is the only satisfaction Baldev has, of rearing two kids and affording two square meals a day.

Despite hand-to-mouth living, Baldev has no regrets because he believes, "Ek vaar tusi auto chala lao te pher kuchch hor nahin kar sakde." After becoming an auto driver in 1963, Baldev did go off the road in 1966-67 to try his hand at other jobs—as a water carrier in the Indian Railways at Pathankot, a cook with the MES and the last one as a peon with the Punjab State Electricity Board. He could not change track and it was back to his auto. Nothing equalled the romance of the road and the freedom of being your own boss, "kisi joga nahin chhadeya is auto ne" as he bemoans.

It is the police that has remained constant in extorting their hafta, says Baldev. "Even the volume of foreign tourists has decreased considerably as compared to the 1960s and 1970s. They were liberal with their tips and it made a lot of difference at the end of the day. The locals only haggle". Now after two years, as the tri-city gears up for CNG autos, perhaps Baldev will witness a new facet of life on the road.