By Ruben Banerjee
From idling away in their vehicles to swerving abruptly in the middle of a busy road to entice a passerby, autorickshaw drivers are a ubiquitous sight – be it around our neighbourhoods or in the vicinity of offices. They have gained a fair degree of notoriety as well for often playing truant. When we need them, we do not get them. When we do, they try to charge exorbitantly.
That some 8 million autorickshaw drivers clogging Indian roads across cities and towns generally suffer from poor public perception is understandable. But what is generally ignored in the process is that the autorickshaw drivers too have their own reasons to be unpredictable and a tad undisciplined.
For one, chaotic Indian roads test their nerves 24/7. More importantly, navigating traffic in their three-wheelers is not a paying profession. While it may seem that the country’s exceptionally large commuting population translates into brisk business, the fact – as established by an IIT Delhi study – is that auto drivers struggle to find passengers, spending some 6 hours daily waiting for passengers.
The study helmed by Prof Anoop Chawla of the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, in December 2022 is an eye-opener in many ways. It reveals that auto drivers work 10-12 hours daily for about 25 days every month, travelling some 70-80 km per day. At an average speed of 25 km/hour, the utilisation of their vehicles works out to only about 30-35 per cent daily. The high non-utilisation means non-productive working hours and poor earnings, with most drivers not earning more than Rs 15,000 a month. If the vehicles had been rented, their earnings come down further.
But their plight can be easily remedied, provided some laws are tweaked to allow autorickshaws to carry freight as well. Besides benefiting auto drivers by enabling them to earn more, such an amendment could also go a long way in accelerating India’s already thriving gig economy.
Achieving the twin goals should be fairly easy. The central government under section 2B of the Motor Vehicles Act of 1988 has the power to exempt specified categories of vehicles from the applicability of the law to promote innovation, research, and development in the fields of transportation. An experimental permission of dual usage – allowing transportation of passengers and freight – can pave the way for the future.
Also, state governments under section 67(3) of the MV Act have the power to develop a scheme, or issue licences for the promotion of development and efficiency in transportation and better utilisation of transportation assets. It means states have the power to permit dual usage.
The benefits of dual usage will also be reaped by the Indian logistics industry. According to a more recent report by WRI India, a research organisation of repute, India’s daily commercial deliveries are expected to grow 40 per cent annually, touching an estimated $380 billion by 2025. The rapid growth would require additional means to execute deliveries that could substantially be met by mostly ‘idle’ autorickshaws.
Of course, the principal beneficiaries would be the three-wheeler drivers. Additional trips due to dual usage are likely to allow them to clock an extra 60 km per day, meaning an additional income of Rs 300-400 daily, minus fuel and food expenses.
Governments too stand to financially gain, since the auto drivers will have to have pay a fee to acquire their dual licensing. The expected increase in cargo movements and consequent trade and commerce will also necessarily result in greater tax revenue collection for the states.
The positives of dual usage are clearly many. For one, legalising the transportation of freight would eliminate the practice of auto drivers illegally carrying them to make a quick buck. It would also stop policemen from taking bribes for looking the other way.
But some thought surely need to directed at what cargo – size, shape, and volume – that autorickshaws can be allowed to ferry. The autos currently are allowed to carry four people – three passengers and one driver. Cargos weighing no more than 225 kg – the cumulative average weight of four people – could be a safe benchmark for being transported in autos.
The three-wheelers also need to undergo some alterations, including doors on either side of the passenger cabin so that goods do not fall off the autorickshaws. Or else, the goods being carried ought to be tied tightly by a harness to the auto structure without protruding in any direction.
The precautions should be enough for safe transportation of freight. As it is, three-wheelers are comparatively safer on Indian roads than other modes of transport though we might think otherwise. In 2022 for example, fatalities involving autorickshaws constituted only 3.9% of total road deaths compared to 43.5 per cent for two-wheelers and 13.7 per cent for cars, taxis, and other light motor vehicles.
Last but not the least, allowing dual usage for autorickshaws makes for immense political sense. Together with their families, autorickshaw drivers constitute a huge constituency that political parties can seek to win over to their side. In Delhi, the Aam Admi Party of Arvind Kejriwal did that rather successfully during the 2015 assembly elections with autorickshaw drivers proving to be a very effective propaganda tool. Besides carrying posters on their vehicles, the drivers helped in orally amplifying the party’s message.
Amending the Motor Vehicles Act for allowing dual licensing that enables the drivers to earn more would earn any political party in power immense goodwill. It would give them a talking point that political rivals would find difficult to drown out.
This article first appeared in The Secretariat, https://thesecretariat.in/article/allowing-autos-to-carry-both-passenger-and-cargo-can-benefit-drivers-and-the-gig-economy
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