Sunday, 20 December 2015

A Kolkata Auto Ride

Just another busy day.
Mention to anyone "Transport in London", and the immediate response you get is the London Underground, or rather the "Tube". Do likewise for Venice, you'll get Gondolas. Dal Lake will give you Shikaras. Doing this exercise for Kolkata will probably venture a response like Trams. Or maybe the Metro Railways, or hand-pulled rickshaws. Rightly so, for these are items associated with our history and heritage. But along with these we have in our city another form of public transport, maybe not of fancy "heritage" value but ubiquitous enough, and quite a part of our daily lives! The grand old Auto-rickshaw. Simply, Auto!

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
Let us then, for the sake of amusement, recall some of the most common experiences we all have of auto rides in our city! All of these are unique and lend quite a bit of flavour to the overall Kolkata experience. I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one whose first thoughts about autos is the oh-so-familiar refrain: "note cholbe na boudi, khuchro din"! And then the ensuing heated exchange between the unfortunate lady in question and the driver. It seems that the rivers of loose change which inundate the city's economic channels dry up completely just as an auto-driver crosses its path. God save the person who boards an auto completely change-less. Then, to those availing autos in very crowded routes, is the unenviable experience of sitting in the middle seat at the back of the auto. Two unknown people on your two sides at uncomfortably close distances, and you are making hopeless efforts to make yourself as small as is physically possible. To those fortunate enough not to have ever been in such situations, imagine finding all aisle and window seats booked on a New Delhi-New York non-stop, and you have an upset stomach.

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.
Another very unique experience can be had in the suburbs. An auto has already taken its quota of four passengers, a fifth comes along, and the auto driver asks for the destination. If the point of disembarking is before the point where a regular traffic police beats start, the lucky passenger hangs on to the little space to the right of the driver and gets off before the auto enters unsafe territory under the stern watch of KP. But if the passenger needs to go to some place further, that is within line-of-sight of a prospective police sergeant, better luck next time dada...

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!