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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
Compiled with inputs from
wikipedia, www.tracingtea.blogspot.com and firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
Sharma | New Delhi
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.
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
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.
Kanchan Vasdev | Ludhiana
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
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?"
to the road
Aruti Nayar |
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
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
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.
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.