Delhi’s Greedy Autowallahs

Last evening, twelve autowallahs stood outside the market when I stepped out. They were all huddled in front of the first one in the line. All except one, who was sitting in his own auto a little further down, fiddling with his phone. Instinctively, I decided to approach this lone wolf instead of the pack. It was past 9 and I was shivering as I moved down the line of autos. I should have carried a jacket, this sweater isn’t enough. Then again, this is Delhi. You never know what to expect.

Hundred rupees, he said. My house, barely two kilometres down the same road we were on, could not be more than thirty by the meter. But thats utopian. The more practical fare at this hour is usually fifty. He has the gall to ask double of what is already more than fair! I laughed, and blurted out one of the most Delhi things possible, “Bhaiyya, why don’t you just ask for five hundred?”

He reduced it to ninety, and eventually to eighty, but I didn’t budge. Of course, I was soon to discover that the other sharks, having caught on to our exchange, were far worse. Hundred and twenty is where they collectively started, and they were much less willing to concede. One after the other, each of the eleven flatly refused to quote a more reasonable price, and I kept replying with more of the choicest Delhi things.

“Bhaiyya, I want to go home, not to Agra!”

“Do you think I am new here?”

“No wonder Uber and Ola are popular!”

To be fair, nothing tops the Delhi list-of-things-to-say than the ubiquitous “do you know who my dad is?”, but at that moment, I didn’t see what the autowallah’s acquaintance (or otherwise) with my family’s brand-value would have achieved. Their responses were equally stereotypical.

“Look, its late. Night-charge.”

“I wont get any customers from there.”

“Theres a lot of traffic, what to do!”

I was tired, I had an early morning the next day, and there was decidedly no traffic. Such bitter haggles become second nature in Delhi, but yesterday I was instantly annoyed. Very annoyed. I’d have probably agreed to something like sixty, maybe seventy, but a hundred was well beyond my outrage threshold.

I checked Uber. The nearest cab was fifteen minutes away. There were no other autos passing by either. Waste fifteen minutes, or entertain this blackmail? Fed-up, frustrated, and quite hungry, I did what I felt would be the biggest slap on their faces (sans hiring Uber, or an actual slap). I decided to walk home. Two kilometres was totally do-able, especially in winters. That it defeated the very objective of getting home quickly was now unimportant. When you annoyed, you annoyed!

“Every time!”, I thought to myself, gnashing with irritation as I hiked through the dark and dug-up mountain trail that was the sidewalk. “Thieves, greedy f**kers! Why cant they just go by the meter!”

These thoughts, in due course, made way for broader condemnations- people suck, Delhi metro sucks (the dug pavement was their doing), this city sucks, North-India sucks, and so on. By the time I reached home half an hour later, I was warm and comfortable in my own undisputed victimhood. I flung my backpack on the bed, refused dinner, made a cup of tea, and lit a cigarette. 

Why are these buggers so greedy? 

I’m not the only one suffering from their institutionalised blackmail. I’ve lost count of how many times I have heard people around me complain about the very same thing- the seemingly insatiable greed of Delhi’s autowallahs. Its common knowledge that an overwhelming majority of autorickshaws in Delhi do not ply on the approved meter. Why? 

Many people have developed strong ethical positions on this- they refuse to go by any auto that doesn’t use the meter. Those with more pragmatic ethics have sharpened their bargaining skills, and their distance-fare approximation abilities. Some are convinced that even the meters are rigged, part of some broader conspiracy. Google maps is an absolute lifesaver though. And most of south Delhi rejoices at the prospect of app-based cab aggregators destroying the viability of autorickshaws. Serves them right.

Two cigarettes down, my internal inferno acquiesced to flights of fancy. I found myself asking, “What would it be like to be an autowallah in Delhi? Would I be just as greedy?”

It would be stupid to pretend that I am not greedy to begin with. That kind moral high-ground seems out of place in a cut-throat business city like Delhi, where everyone from the corner shop owner to the flashy start-up entrepreneur wants to maximise their ‘margin’. Who wants to be a millionaire? Apparently everyone. 

Expressing a desire to earn less money than what you already earn is sure to bring your sanity to question. But thats not greed- thats ambition. Is it the same ambition that made a certain big hospital overcharge (by 700%, allegedly) for the treatment of a seven year old with dengue who died in their care? Or the ambition that makes high-fashion brands overprice (by over 10000%) their clothes made in third-world sweatshops? Surely, no one calls an employee of Fortis or Gucci greedy (though Greedy Gucci, à la Gucci Grace, sure has a ring to it). Instead, we celebrate their side-shows of corporate social ‘responsibility’ and environmental ‘concern’.

But never mind that. We sleep comfortably knowing that no autowallah will ever know Gucci, and will only know Fortis as a destination. What does he (because its always a he) see as he zips around our urban cornucopia? Neon lights and billboards? Loud music blaring from big houses? High boundary walls? 

What are our modern cityscapes, from hungover khas to chic citiwalk, if not gigantic billboards promising social mobility and its dizzying rewards? And the key to this social mobility? Spending, eating, consuming, gulping, gorging, and stuffing more. Would you like to pay by cash, or card?

The sight of anything I cant afford generally depresses me. Its an instant reminder of my standing in the consumption-chain. What do I usually do? Block it, ignore it, pretend like Bugatis and Bvlgaris don’t exist. Surely, autowallahs do the same. What could possibly remind them of their plankton-existence in our capitalist shark tank? 

Except their customers. Flashy smartphones and fancy haircuts? Not really. The very fact that I choose to spend on autos indicates my ability to spend more than the autodriver. He doesn’t need more persuasion to believe that I am richer than him. But we offer it anyway. 

Consumerism is premised on the display of wealth and prosperity. We do our best to show our prosperity, even if that prosperity is built on loans and debt. We conceal our poverty, because capitalism tells you that you are free to be whatever you want, as long as you work towards it. We feel guilty, or ashamed, of our poverty- however real or imagined it may be. We want to convince anyone we meet that we are successful- and the biggest sign of it, of course, is material prosperity.

What about the autowallahs being actually super rich but playing sheep? Yeah, thats true. Its stupid that I never considered how much fun it is to zip around the city in a hybrid, three-wheeled scooter, alternating between the 45 degrees of summer days and the single digit of winter nights. Totally fun!

What about personal integrity though? True that! Doesn’t matter that parliamentarians are routinely exposed to have conflicts of interest, or the President of a self-appointed superpower mocks a specially-abled journalist, the onus of integrity falls on our autowallahs, domestic helps, drivers, cooks and nannies- all those who thrive under the rainbow umbrella of modern servitude.

Isn’t this a generalisation though? Surely, there are specific individuals who are greedy and unscrupulous, and give a bad name to the more docile majority who happily accept their subjugation? True, very true. But why highlight their individuality now when we usually treat them as nothing more than an undifferentiated horde- unclean and lazy? I certainly haven’t bothered ask any autowallah his name- that most rudimentary marker of personhood. Indeed, isn’t the mark of professionalism the persistent erasure of the self in favour of a mechanical service-provider? Aren’t waiters, housekeeping staff, receptionists, ushers, guards, janitors and the like just meant to remain nameless, speechless, and (whenever possible) invisible?

Wait a minute. What about playing by the rules? The regard for law? Autowallahs provide a service to the public, so shouldn’t their work be strictly regulated?

I like the idea: regulation. Funny though, that the darling word for India’s economic future happens to be the exact opposite: de-regulation. From the IMF to every self-assured economic expert on TV, the need to de-regulate the Indian economy- its labour laws, its liability clauses, its liquidity requirements- is treated as a truism. So we are supposed to do away with regulation when it comes to the interests of the Ambanis, and be more stringent about regulation when it comes to autowallahs? But then again, we mustn’t ignore the unmistakable benefit of the trickle-down from Ambani’s 27-floor lego nightmare.

At this point it must seem like my outrage at being ripped off has taken a decidedly masochistic turn. It hasn’t. I am not saying, “hence, autowallahs are totally right to rip us off!” What I am saying, though, is that theres something bizarre in my selective outrage at this- while I let a lot of other instances just slide, even if I am overcharged many times more. We are barely as particular about the margin of restaurant food, or private-school tuitions, or that cocktail we had last weekend. And we certainly don’t call the bartender, or the owner, a greedy f**k.

False equivalence? How can the services of a cardiologist be compared to that of an autowallah? Years of studying- and the delicate knowledge of physiological intricacies- cant possibly be compared to someone who needs basic knowledge of driving? True, which is why a doctor gets at least a lakh for an hour’s surgery, while an autowallah earns roughly 150 rupees in the same hour. How much more is that? Just 70000%. 

Of course, if the labour of getting us from one place to another were so unimportant then, by the logic of demand-supply, autowallahs wouldn’t exist. Moreover, we wouldn’t be so frustrated by the lack of finding an auto when we step out, or blame reaching office late on the lack/delay in finding one. I understand though, that if we paid autowallahs more, then that would mean one lipstick less, or one less trip to HKV. The horror, the horror!

Its not you though, its the system? Yes, the fascinating undervaluing of physical labour in favour of ‘specialisation’ must be the hallmark of economics. Life is the cheapest commodity- and in a country with an abundance of limbs, it’s share-value only dips further in our everyday commodity exchange. Calling an autowallah greedy is met with ready agreement, but calling the doctors at Fortis thugs is defamation. I suppose what we don’t pay these people in cash, we pay in abuses, and carefully crafted social exclusion.

But an autowallah’s child can go on to be a doctor, right? She just needs to study, work hard, and move out of the degradation. And don’t we have those super ‘unfair’ reservations for exactly these kinds of opportunities? Totally- theres no argument against this flavour of hope peddled around. Even every autowallah would like to think so. May the odds always be in your favour.

Coming back to me, the privileged fuck who need only be an autowallah in the safety of his late-night imagination, as I drive around in my imaginary auto, looking at all the things I cant afford, meeting customers who treat me with casual disdain, never bothering with any small talk (instantly wary/creeped-out/suspicious of any attempt at conversation from me), constantly bargaining for pittances, through all this, my motivation is that my child doesn’t have to do what I do. How do I relate to my own labour then? As an object of hate? Of shame? Or as an exercise in sacrifice- where I drink the proverbial poison to let my children escape? As the workings of fate? A doctor’s dream is that her kid follows in her footsteps; for me that’s the ultimate defeat.

And how do I feel about my customers? Cold, outside this busy market with thumping music, bright lights, and chattering crowds, waiting in the shadows for someone to hire my service? That fellow, walking towards me in a warm sweater, carrying some fancy coffee in his hand, with a backpack (definitely has a laptop in it), expensive black boots, an iPhone that he doesn’t even bother protecting with a cover, looking tired from all the laughing and talking, almost embarrassed of taking an auto because its not a rich-enough thing-do-to, now asking me to take him home in his posh neighbourhood; how do I feel about him? How much would be fair for me to charge him?

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