|Just another busy day.|
The auto-rickshaw is quite an integral part of not only the Kolkata but the entire country's transport system, more so in the cities, and with each city you get some new variety. Mode of usage of the vehicle may differ but the basic structure remains same; a three-wheeled automobile, metal body, sides open, canvas roof, handle-bar controls for the driver, acceleration and gear-changing by hand, and a single foot-brake. Running fuel may vary, as may the space and size.
Welcome to a Kolkata auto ride. In cities like Mumbai and Chennai, autos are not shared and are booked by the passenger for his or her travel, akin to taxis. The vehicle also runs by a metre. But not so in Kolkata! We have our own unique system for auto-rides, where specific routes exist for autos which generally connect two important focal points not very far off from each other, maintained and run by auto unions who determine the rates, and to hell with metres and other regulations. How much you pay for a ride is determined by a rate chart, and in sometimes, the auto-wallah's whim.
|An early version of the three-wheeled Piaggo Ape|
The Piaggio Ape, a three-wheeler vehicle conceptualized and manufactured in Italy for the first time in 1948, can be said to be the antecedent of the modern auto. Read more about it here. In India, in the later part of the 20th century, with increasing population the need was felt to have a convenient, cheap, low-investment mode of transport for densely populated areas. Add to it the additional maneuverability of the three-wheeled auto with a very small turning radius, it was the perfect solution.
Coming back to Kolkata, the city grew into the suburbs, and so did the popularity of this mode of transport. In view of the environmental hazards of using unregulated fuel to run the autos, it was made mandatory to run autos on LPG or CNG only, and not any other possibly adulterated fuel. In view of the auto-drivers' tendency to cram in as many people as possible onto his vehicle in a single trip, it was then decided that a maximum of four passengers will be allowed, with no embarking or disembarking from the right side of the vehicle. Traffic congestion due to autos also needed to be prevented, so most of the major thoroughfares are now out-of-bounds for autos, leaving the arterioles of the city for them to ply their trade on.
Who actually ride the autos? Everyone. For those availing public transport, the bus or metro routes will only take you so far and drop you at the major intersection nearest to your residence. If you live in the inner parts, quite far removed from the thoroughfare, you probably need to depend on an auto to take you home. Also, given the notoriety of the punctuality of the city's bus service, those in a hurry also need to avail of autos, which are capable of reaching the destination in minimum time. For daily routines such as dropping kids off at nearby schools, autos are very useful, and can be hired on a monthly basis. So, autos are convenience-maximized optimum-utility transport facilities par excellence.
|The latest model of Kolkata Auto-rickshaws|
Now for the most irritating aspect: the waiting. You are in a hurry, find an empty auto with the driver screaming himself hoarse yelling his destination, and you feel relieved. But no, if you are an experienced passenger you have the foresight to guess that the driver is not going to press the pedal unless his vehicle has its full quota of passengers, and in case it is not the rush hour, the waiting time can be as long as anything you can imagine. Again, if you drive your own car to work, you definitely have had a few blood-boiling encounters with autos, who seem to be the root cause of most of the traffic snarls and hair-breadth escapes from collision. Also, not to forget the uncomfortable experience of sitting beside the open doors of an auto during winter, with the speeding auto making a blast of cold wind hit your face and exposed, skin making it numb.
|Getting ready for work.|
If your driver or one of the co-passengers for the trip is of a talkative disposition, you certainly won't get bored during the journey. From onion prices to Alia Bhatt, free WiFi zones to economic policies, everything gets discussed under an auto roof. You might also get a fair idea about the present chart-busters rocking the music industry presently inside an auto. Irrespective of the party flag which graces its rear, the political tone of the city streets is also best judged inside the autos which ply on them ... But lets leave that for another day.
So these are those colourful and varied experiences one has on one of the city's most common transportation devices. They have their many advantages which we avail of, and also certainly have a host of problems as well which affect the common man. But feel what you might about them, they are certainly an unforgettable part of the Kolkata experience, and the flavour they add to the city is quite unique!