If there is one thing that the successive governments in Tamil Nadu can take credit for over the last two decades, it is their ability to allow an unregulated autorickshaw sector to extend its grip on the travelling public. They may claim that there have been court cases that have come in the way of revising fares from time to time, and then the periodic revision in the price of petrol which is too much for them to handle administratively. These are of course, convenient excuses, but not ones that governments can get away with.
In the absence of proper metered fares, the system of "pre-paid" fares came into operation. That has all but collapsed, because the government is not serious about that either.
Chennai Central is the favourite location for autorickshaws to look for passengers who know nothing about Chennai. The pre-paid system here is in need of repair. Then comes the Koyambedu bus terminus, touted as Asia's largest by many. There is a pre-paid autorickshaw counter here too. The booth will give you a fare for a particular place, with the caveat that "if you have baggage, you must negotiate with the autorickshaw driver, as they may want extra." The system gets deflated pretty much instantly.
If you do find an autorickshaw driver who quotes the "extra" and is ready to ply, he will ask you questions about the location. Invariably, the idea is to pick a quarrel with the passenger on the ground that the place mentioned in the pre-paid ticket is far short of the actual destination. Passengers are then left with no option but to cough up some more money to avoid abuse and menacing behaviour.
Which brings us to the point: Just what is the Tamil Nadu government's idea about autorickshaw fares? It is true that there needs to be a costing done for autorickshaw operations, with sufficient returns for the operator. The system of giving permits only to owners was intended to do away with the rent-seeking by financier-owners. Why has that not worked?
Third, if petrol pumps can keep recalibrating their fuel dispensing counters every time there is a petrol price revision, is it not possible to do the same with electronic autorickshaw meters which the law now makes mandatory anyway?
The general discourse on autorickshaw fares paints the autorickshaw drivers as an exploited lot, who are being unfairly targeted by critics. Many of them are indeed in need of social support mechanisms, but then, so are the people who use autorickshaws for essential travel. Moreover, the present system helps not the genuine operator, but organised groups of autorickshaw owners who exploit the lack of regulation to make a killing, affecting the lower middle class, the elderly, the physically handicapped and children, who are unable to own or operate cars.
The market is of course getting segmented in an unexpected manner. The non-standard ways in which the autorickshaws charge have created a ready market for meter-based taxis. They offer air-conditioned vehicles and with the exception of some boorish drivers, generally provide acceptable service. The key is the meter: there is no ambiguity, or dilemma.
By failing to play the game with a win-win idea, the autorickshaws are shrinking their own market without realising it.