Tamilnadu Auto Vottunar Sammelanam (Tamilnadu Federation of Auto Driver’s Union-CITU), along with its affiliates organized a major protest demonstration in Chepauk on the 28th of December 2012 to demand a just revision of public auto fares to Rs 30 for the first 2km and Rs 15 for every km thereof. It also demanded including the trade unions in discussion as well as decision making (unlike the previous time) and setting up a committee for periodic revision of auto fares to reflect inflation and price rise. The day long protest attracted over 1000 auto drivers from across the city, including women auto drivers. The Slogan rang “ We are ready (for using meters) ; Are you Ready (for revising fares)” . The leaders of auto rickshaw unions from different parts of the city as well as union leaders from fraternal unions including Red Flag union, Electricity Board union, AITUC auto drivers federation spoke at the demonstration pledging their solidarity for the auto drivers struggle.
Many speakers pointed out to the increasing news reports that portray auto drivers as unruly people bent upon fleecing commuters. Taking exception to such media portrayal, they ridiculed the media for blatant exaggeration while pointing out the considerable gap between the meter rates and present costs had led to this situation. They also presented anecdotal stories of the gracious attitude of auto drivers and their importance to the cities transport network. They criticized the central government for the anti people policies and wanton increase of fuel prices but its total neglect of working class interests. CITU members even raised the issue of FDI in multi brand retail.
Discussing about the present demands, Mr. M S Ramachandran, Gen Sec of TNAVS, maintained that the fares they demand is basic and it has been evolved keeping in mind the cost of living, the current fuel prices and cost of autos. He also said that the government had appointed a committee which had recommended a fare not less that Rs 20 minimum and Rs 10 for every km thereof. This he maintained was untenable at the present cost. “The last time (in 2007) they went ahead and announced the rates without consultation with us, we asked our members not to conform to the order. Inspite of the State’s efforts to lock up autos and threaten drivers, we fought for our rights and eventually the meter fell out of use. If they do the same we will we go ahead and implement these rates independently”, He said citing the case of call taxi services whose prices were not government regulated.
Ms. Shanthi, a women auto driver and district secretary of TNAVS, discussed how she had moved to being an auto driver as this promised a decent income for the family. She had learnt to ride two wheelers as a teenager and when she could not find any job through the employment exchange, she took to driving autos. The increasing cost of petrol and maintenance was causing serious loss of income for her. “We spend about Rs 350/- a day on petrol, 150-200 on due/rent for auto. We also have to put up with periodic maintenance costs. calculating all this we feel we will need to make Rs 1200-1500/- a day to cover cost and run a family of four. It is on this basis that we have arrived at the rates”. She also suggested that if these rates are notified and over 75% of the auto drivers began using their meters, the lumpen elements bent upon making fast cash by overcharging commuters will disappear. Mr. Kumaraguru, district sec in TNAVS maintained that even the people were prepared to pay these rates and the only trouble was the government not notifying it. He said that the government has to account for the cost incurred by auto drivers during the annual certification exercise (Fitness Certificate) and sought a simplification of the process.
Many auto drivers, though not part of the protest agreed that the fares demanded were appropriate and any reduction would once again cause serious problems. Some even pointed out the stiff competition from call taxis and share autos and demanded that the government curb the unlicensed share autos. They assured the people that auto’s will ply with their meters if the demand was met.