M A I N   N E W S

Mumbai auto drivers double as mobile phone salesmen
Shiv Kumar/TNS

Mumbai, March 24
Is it really difficult for an honest auto-rickshaw driver to earn a living in Mumbai? The answer seems to be in the affirmative, going by the huge differential in fares paid by commuters who take three-wheelers with mechanical meters susceptible to tampering and those fitted with electronic meters.

"A study by a local newspaper showed passengers are charged as much as 37 per cent more because of tampered auto-rickshaw meters," says Hemant Jain, a Mumbai-based entrepreneur whose venture ‘Rickshawale’ encourages auto-drivers to stick to the straight and narrow path. Around 400 auto-drivers have so far signed up with the venture to improve their communication skills and learn innovative ways to augment their income without having to cheat customers.

As a first step, the honest auto drivers who have installed the tamper-proof e-meters, also known as Gandhi meters, have been trained in selling mobile phone SIM cards and recharges. The auto-drivers earn Rs 250 for every SIM card activated by their customers. "Most of the auto-drivers are poor people who are driven to do illegal things in order to survive," says Jain.

Typically, auto-drivers who hire their vehicles have to pay a daily rent on their vehicles to their owners apart from paying for gas. They are also required to pay for repairs if the autos suffer any breakdown.

Getting auto-rickshaw drivers to install e-meters hasn't been easy. So far, only six auto-rickshaw drivers have installed the e-meters while the rest are waiting for a decision from the Bombay High Court. The next hearing in the matter is on Sunday. Predictably, Mumbai's powerful auto-rickshaw unions have opposed installation of the e-meters on the grounds that even these are not tamper-proof.

Jain agrees on this point with the unions though. "There is nothing that cannot be tampered with. But an e-meter has a built-in chip that cannot be meddled with unless one knows the source code. Thus, a roadside mechanic cannot tamper with these meters," says Jain.

Auto-drivers who have installed the e-meters say they are making a lot less than before. One auto-driver told a local newspaper that his monthly earnings would amount to just Rs 5,000 after the new meter was installed. He went on to say that drivers who tampered with their meters earned thrice the amount they did.

Should the authorities make installation of e-meters compulsory, it would become necessary for auto-rickshaw drivers to look for alternative means to augment their income. "I am also thinking of training the drivers in selling insurance products. Many of them have regular customers and these guys are sharp and pick up things even though they are not well educated," says Jain.





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