Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Auto drivers and honesty

Living in Chennai one tends to forget that auto drivers and (dis)honesty are not in any way related. Though I have a theory of natural selection which says that auto drivers in Chennai have been over charging for so long that successive generations with specimens who could have been honest could not possibly survive and have got naturally weeded out along with their 'honesty' genes. This kind of genetic selection can of course be social rather than literal.

The unique perfidy of Chennai auto drivers was brought back to me forcefully by two incidents during my recent travels. In Pune I took an auto rickshaw back from Sancheti hospital. At the destination, the driver kept staring at his meter card (in Pune the meter reading needs to be converted to money units) and after some hesitation asked me how much I had paid on the way out. I told him it was Rs. 24 whereupon he said his meter was showing Rs 45 which he noticed was way too high for this distance. Of course in one place he had had to take a detour from the way in because of a one-way street, so we agreed to Rs. 30 and he was very happy.

In Ahmedabad, again recently, I was taking an auto rickshaw to the Physical Research Laboratory and wasn't sure of the way. The driver told me he would prefer if I gave directions, though he could find his way by asking people. However, in that case there was the danger that he wouldn't be taking the shortest route and I would end up paying more than the standard amount. Finally he did find his way and the fare was approximately what it would have been anyway via the shortest route.

In the two decades or so I have been in Chennai, I have encountered exactly two honest auto drivers (yes, two) by which I mean they agreed to go by the meter. This is of course no longer possible since meters have not been calibrated in a long while and most of them don't work anyway. A distance of about a kilometer typically costs anything between Rs. 25-30 which must surely count among the most expensive for this mode of transport. In a gesture of abject helplessness, the police here have now decided that auto rickshaw drivers who recalibrate their meters and use them honestly will carry a red (or was it green) label to signify their existence, in the fond hope that it will shame the others into following suit. How 'fond' can hope be?


L said...

It's called delusion not hope.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Oddly enough, I see "honesty" differently: in my experience autos everywhere overcharge if you are an obvious tourist, and especially if you are a foreigner. They seem to see this as fair game -- if they can get you to agree to a higher price upfront, it's an honest deal, by their standards. The very same guy will not keep your bag and its money if you leave it in the auto: he will return it to the police, or if he thinks he knows where you are, will actually come looking for you. This happens in Chennai but is not Chennai-specific: I've even known such incidents in Delhi (and was told that the only other country where it would happen is Japan). Meanwhile, I've been told by women in Chennai that, overcharging or not, they feel safer in autos here than in other cities...

Rahul Basu said...

True, I used 'honesty' in the sense of charging a fair price for the service rendered. Of course in Chennai the problem is compounded by the rates not being revised for years together. But even when they are (as they were a couple of years ago to Rs. 7 per km) few auto drivers switched to that rate. The interesting argument they gave was that it would cut into their profits!

In trying to figure what a reasonable rate would be, here is a simple calculation. Even a poorly maintained auto gives around 25km to a litre, usually much more. At Rs 50 to a litre of petrol this works out to an expense of Rs. 2 per km. Throw in vehicle and driver upkeep and there is reason to justify Rs. 7 or even Rs. 10 at the outer limit. But Rs. 25?

Despite Delhi's much maligned citizenry, I find Delhi auto drivers far more polite and even 'reasonable' when overcharging. Overcharging in Delhi is to the tune of about 10 -15%, not 100% !

AmOK said...

It's not "dishonest" if the buyer doesn't feel cheated. A matter of managing expectations. This is the main problem, customer ill-will, not the dynamic pricing, which airlines do all the time - and we don't call it dishonest.