It’s time to banish the 3 wheeler, once and for all

A thousand questions raised, a million thoughts provoked, a billion bones chilled, a nation shamed. The pangs of regret on why that evening had to be so horrid, why could it not have been like any other wintry night…were if you ask me, obvious. The girl should have been with us in 2013. She should have been oblivious and invisible to us, like she was on December 15.

And yet, she has now become a part of our lives. In the ensuing weeks, I happened to ask myself, how did it all start on that fateful night of December 16? And the answer that I got was something that could become part of an automobile blog. Her horror started when a dozen auto rickshaws refused to do their duty…of ferrying people to their homes.

As somebody who has spent almost a decade in Delhi, I can vouch for it and I am sure most of you can too, its a virtual racket that is being run in the name of providing public transport by auto rickshaws in Delhi. As a terrible example of automotive in-expertise alone, the three legged monsters ought to be buried under ground. It is unsafe, archaic, unruly and better suited to the dusty famished roads of a third world country.

The propensity to topple over is a habitual failing and the protection that it provides in such an event, is negligible. So while it will not take your life, it might as well account for a limb or two and subject you to a life worse than death.

Further, as December 16 proves, it does not fulfill its role as a means to get from point A to point B either. Had the girl and her friend been able to take an auto to Dwarka, their ordeal in the bus would have been avoided. Had it been Mumbai or Kolkata, that would invariably be the case. Hell, thats what happens there all the time. Women doing late nights step out confidently, hail a cab that does not refuse to take her wherever she needs to go, without haggling over fares or harassing her any other way. This is Delhi though, the national capital. Surely we need to also show the worst that is to show in India.

Agreed, it is the ones driving it that are to blame. But when you cant kill the cat, starve him instead. Try hiring a scooter and you will be subjected to at least half a dozen refusals before somebody obliges. And when he does, he will most certainly refuse to be metered. So either you agree to his princely tantrums or be prepared to wait forever. In most cases you will opt for the former. In lay man’s terms, it is tantamount to extortion. When somebody exploits somebody else’s needs.

A large part of the blame rests with the near perfect maze of corruption that the transport department in Delhi has devised in collusion with financers and unemployable drivers. With permits to drive autos in Delhi being capped, any entrant has to buy an old permit in black. The premium ranges between Rs 2-3 lakh with everybody getting a cut in that. A state sponsored black hole.

In 2011, the Supreme Court tried to break this hegemony by allowing 35,000 new permits to be issued. That would have taken the total number of autos on the road to 90,000. The reasoning was simple and sound. Demand and supply. More autos on the road for the same pool of customers means more competition. In a pool that may diminish thanks to metro connectivity, it means even more intense competition. Which in turn leads to lower fares and better service. As it so happens in India though, the intentions are hijacked by scrappy execution. Read more

Suffice to say, it is better to debunk them rather than trying to take them along. There are a few traditional arguments against that. Chief among them is the lack of an alternative. What can replace these stupid autos? Another is higher fares. The vehicles that replace would surely cost a bomb which would mean higher fares. And a third is that those who drive autos today would invariably drive whatever comes in its place. So precious little will change. The arguments are however, stretched.

At a time when Bajaj has developed a four wheeler to replace its own three wheelers and a CNG version of the Nano is in the works, the excuse of a lack of alternative does not work. Bajaj is constrained by the lack of a policy on quadracycles in India. The right way would be to formulate such a policy while banning production of three wheelers altogether. Physics proves, four wheels is always better than three.

The question of higher pricing when the permit itself is more expensive than the cost of the vehicle, makes no sense as well. Banish the old permit raj altogether and devise a new system for these four wheelers. Ensure there is no baggage from the past. At Rs 2 lakh on road for a Nano and an even lower price for a Bajaj RE60, the gestation period for a new cab driver would still be lower than for a three wheeler today.

The nature of drivers could be controlled as well. Most of the drivers who behave so obediently in Mumbai also hail from the same hinterland as those in Delhi. What is different, is the way they manage their finances and the efficacy of policing. Since the capital needed to get started in Delhi is so high, drivers are under pressure from day 1. This forces them to overcharge. Since shorter trips bring greater returns, it also incentivises them to reject trips like Saket to Dwarka.

A four wheeler will also be more attuned to technology. A tamper proof metre can be wedged into the vehicle dynamics during the course of manufacturing instead, rather than a retro-fitment that is vulnerable to tampering. So can a GPS monitoring system. This would ensure that the vehicle always has a working meter that a customer can insist upon and the security cover that GPS provides. These combined would deter drivers from misbehaving. Cars are easier to track and chase as well. The chances of them getting away would be lower too.

Lastly, lack of three wheelers would make Delhi roads safer for other motorists. The three wheelers are most oblivious to traffic rules, jump red lights at will, unaware of lane changing and harbor a fetish for zigzagging through traffic. Getting them out of the way would bring some sanity on the roads too.

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