Wednesday, August 11, 2010

On The Economics Of The Madras Autorickshaw

Netizens of Bangalore have apparently gathered under the banner of Meterjam. In their own words:
ecause strikes need a strike back! We're tired of meter that always reads more than it should, drivers who refuse to ply and demand return fare whenever they want. And if all that wasn't enough, now we have to deal with strikes too, any time the 'unions' decide!

Everyone is holding the janta to ransom. How much more will we pay? It's time to turn the tables.

So on 12th August, shake your head and say NO if an auto driver offers a ride!
If the Bangalore fellows can evoke such a reaction, the reputation of the Chennai auto fellows will possibly set off something like the Long March. At least in Bangalore, they'll pretend that the meter is jammed, there won't be a return savaari back from just the place you want to go to and so on. In Madras, there's no pretense. The meter is just an ornament, a pro forma declaration of intent to provide transportation.

When the subject is broached with the average Madrasi and the average visitor to Madras from those delightful orderly places ("In Bombay you know, the autowallah will even give back Rs. 0.50 in change, you know."), you will find a small vein near the temple start to throb in an alarming fashion. Invective gushes forth; destinations are suggested for auto drivers that make a Siberian gulag seem like Mylai Karpagambal Mess; summary public punishments are proposed that leave the entire Saudi ruling class gasping in admiration.

The Meterjam fellows are definitely entitled to protest, more power to them. There is however, one problem. Why, the anguish?

Most of the people I know who crib about this state of affairs are honest Joes and Janes, strong believers in the glories of such things as Private Enterprise, Free Markets, "easier" Labour Laws, Libertarianism and so on. And yet when faced with this particular example of private enterprise, there seems to be a problem.

After all, what goes on during your typical Madras auto haggle? You quote a ridiculous (to him) price, he quotes a ridiculous (to you) fare, you do the +10/-10 dance for a bit, some emotional appeals to honesty and conscience, and finally either you agree, or both of you move on. Isn't the price of a thing (or service) that magic number which the consumer is willing to pay and the provider is willing to accept? I submit to you that the Chennai auto haggle is the closest thing you will ever see to a scene from "Atlas Shrugged"! Whence cometh the moaning and groaning?

Thinking about it differently, what if all techies were forced by law to work for Rs. 15,000 per month as salary (50% above meter if they put night-outs!)? No more performance based incentives, no more premium for being smarter or knowing more or being willing to do boring and distasteful jobs. Nice, no? So why are you complaining about Manikyam?

One objection I've heard when I've framed the issue in this manner is that it's still not truly a "free market". In a truly free market, anyone would be allowed to operate an auto, there won't be barriers to entry into the business and so on, and this will be a "fair" system and whatever price point results is the "fair" price.

The argument has merit, but I'm not buying it entirely. My feeling (admittedly un-verified/-verifiable) is that even if into that heaven of freedom this city awakes, the cribbers will crib about how auto drivers are colluding to jack up prices etc., as long as they can compare it to the "fixed price" systems in other cities.

To conclude:

1. Madras (and such) are the only places that have truly free and fair autorickshaw service markets. This is closer to the free market utopia that we're all so keen on, than all other "fixed meter" places. You might want to try and remember this the next time you begin to declaim on such matters.

2. Shut the fuck up, pay up, and enjoy the ride.

3. You may perhaps have noticed these other strange long contraptions with numbers etc. on the road. In the alphabet of public transport, if you can't stand 'A for Auto', the next best bet is 'B for the fucking Bus'. Try taking one ever so often.

4. Also, if you stand straight and look straight down towards the floor, right above it, most of you will find 2 columns, banana tree trunk like. They are called "legs". The remainder of this proof is left as an exercise to the discerning reader.

5. That's all.


kbpm said...

secretly (or not so secretly), i feel some joy in being ripped off by an auto driver. i fucking pay whatever the fuck they ask for, incidentally. i have paid Rs.40-Rs.100 for a ride to my office, variously. i have paid Rs.25 for a ride from the next road (unexpected rain; groceries; child in tow). i have not had a SINGLE fight with the auto guys, however. On the other hand, most of my near and dear ones have harangued me to hell and back about my gullibility, stupidity, and sheer incompetence with money. Please tell them your utopia and atlas theory (sounds like its in languaze that they understand anyhow). Please do the needful. Thanking you, Sincerely, Kenny.

indisch said...

With due regards Mr. Wittgenstein, there are a couple of points to dwell upon.

1. Such is the nature of matters that if Madrasis bought autos (or better still Nanos), then our outspoken autowallahs will have a rather hard time. Since we are sympathetic to and understand their right to livelihood, we recommend that they stick to the stipulated rules that govern them and amend those rules when dissatisfaction rises its head.

2. We are not averse to 'shut the fuck up, pay up and enjoy the ride'. However, it's an exercise in futility when one wants so bad to retort back in the same manner (complete with matching invectives) when subjected to the same, see the hard earned money (it really is hard earned when one slogs one's ass off, without even the remotest chance of a tip or under-the-table Laxmi making it to one) being siphoned off unscrupulously and the climate-fellow Madrasis-rickety auto conspiring to deprive us of enjoyment of our ride.

But some ideas that you've so lucidly put forth are worth pondering over. Performance based incentives for e.g. We can perhaps start off with a Rs. 10 tip if the driver steps out, deposits one's luggage safely in the back and an additional Rs. 20 if he drives on CNG and doesn't flout traffic rules. What say? :-)

Subbareddy said...


D said...

I think you wrote this post so that you could link to the one and only superstar in some way...

Ludwig said...

[bunkpor] good on you. don't let anyone harangue you!


1. de facto, they have amended the rules :P
2. i can't help you with the climate and fellow Madrasis, but in respect of the auto fellow, while i agree that there are from time to time nasty specimens in their midst, part of the unpleasantness arises because even before we've hailed one, we've made up our minds that we are going to get ripped off, he is cheating us of our 'hard earned' money etc. etc. we pre-judge the guy and so the negotiations don't start off on a good footing. why don't you try paying them exactly what they ask for and see how nice they are to you? :P

much of thesis about our collective auto angst is based on one funda: the problem we have with the Madras auto or the over-charging Bangalore auto etc. is that we have an "anchor price" in mind (from the days of metered fixed price autos) and somehow can't wrap our mind around the fact that someone might choose to ignore the anchor. come to think of it, the meter price is as arbitrary as any other, and when was the last time you argued at a restaurant or a multiplex or a clothes shop about the price? the psychological trick you need to pull on yourselves to free yourself from the auto persecution complex is to de-anchorify your head!

i definitely agree with the incentives for good driving, CNG etc.!! may the markets prevail!

[Subbareddy] thank you, thank you! you are wise and far-seeing.

[d-man] heh heh. of course the moment i thought of Madras autos i thought of thalaivar and did the needful!

Space Bar said...

As I said on someone's FB page - after pointing 'em to your post - is, I think the auto drivers should put fake trim on their doorways, a bottle holder near the meter and charge a premium for value-added services.

Sue said...

I have travelled on buses and autos in Madras and the problem with the buses is trying to figure out where the hell they go, what with the writing mostly being in Tam. This gets worse if I don't know the exact stop. I can ask the conductor if it travels to that particular area but by the time I formulate the sentence the bus is gone.

What really rocks in Madras is the train service.

What rocks about the buses is that one route will take me from Broadway to "Parris" on one ticket.

And now excuse me while I go feel homesick all over again. (Cal's great but it ain't southie.)

Pipa said...

all good and valid points.

If was not for some perusu constantly haranguing me at home about these supposed rip-offs -- and how I should guard against them -- I will be able to follow your advice more easily.

Ludwig said...

[' '] Heh. I have a friend who, when confronted with exorbitant auto, sticks her head inside, peers around carefully, turns to driver and says, "Enna anna/thambi AC a?"!

[Sue] Welcome to le Choultry! When were these bus experiences you were talking about? I think this is also part of the image problem that Madras has. Because of all the cities in the south, by far it is Madras that has the most readable bus numbers/signs. Almost every bus has the number printed only in English, and the origin and destination also in English and Tamil. In AP (at least in Hyd and Vizag), only the number is in English, the rest of the text is in Telugu, and in Bangalore the whole thing is in Kannada (in Kerala everything is in Mallu only). So in terms of navigating the bus network also, Madras is the easiest for the non-native. Quite apart from the dirt cheapness of getting to Parris and Broadway ;)

[Pipa] Welcome back! Oh the perusus! For their kind perusal, please refer them to this blog post, and then they may let you be, as per usual.

Mukta said...

This is an interesting argument. I remember, when I lived in Delhi, someone said that why should two auto-drivers be paid the same fare, when they differ in skill, etc. A big reason why I support the jam, though, is because these people are unwilling to go anywhere - whether it's 9 in the morning or 9 at night.Also, there is a meter, right? They must submit to government rules too.I mean, imagine, the next thing you know, there will be different buses charging different fares depending on the driver or whatever.I am slightly incoherent, because I auto-fellas agitate me considerably.Now, of course, I've come to the conclusion that all the rick-fellas graduate from the same University of Jerkdom...and it seems like they all pass put with flying colors! :-)

IvanHoe said...

I would like to know,
How do u answer for the following
1. Information asymmetry - No idea of the distance!
2. Lack of capability - Doesn't know tamil or don't have ability to bargin ?
What about old people who have to travel and face the wrath of these pests?
Thus, this jugaad or so called free market is a temporary solution.
This market has to be regulated for the welfare of the state and it's subjects! Else chaos will prevail..
Of course there is Union to demand for the rate hike and 10 or 20 above the meter public will be happy to give, not this Jaam bajar haggling!
Even a software engineer can't switch his jobs at the drop of a hat. It's a quasi free market there too, salaries are fixed by the companies, of course.
My humble feeling is the comparison does not hold good.

Ludwig said...

[Mukta] Thanks for stopping by. I'm actually not arguing that the autofellas are right in charging whatever they want. I've been at the "receiving end" and it used to make my blood boit. All I'm saying is that all these people who say, "Oh, the government has fixed these rules, auto fellows should not crib and should just obey." should just extend that argument logically to, "Oh, the government has fixed these rules about reservations/taxes/wages etc., we should not crib and should just obey."

[IvanHoe] Thanks for the comment. I ask you:

When did we last lose sleep over information asymmetry in other areas? Job markets (for one) etc. Or for that matter lack of ability? If you have a lack of ability, you shut up and deal with it as best as you can and don't complain about people who can. Isn't that the norm?

Please feel free to regulate the markets, only thing is if in its wisdom the government regulates things that are distasteful to you, don't complain. Because those restrictions and rules are also justified as being for the welfare of the state and its subjects.

aandthirtyeights said...

Some Madras autodriver negotiation tips:

1. (a) Always let him quote a price before you haggle. Never indicate your willingness to pay any amount before he gives an indicative figure.

(b) If he quotes x, the correct price is usually (x/2)+10. In a more nuanced calculation, the correct price is (x/s)+10, where s is the sucker quotient. For a thoroughbred, s is 2, if you don't know where your destination is, s is 3, if you cannot speak the Semmozhi or are a dollar brahmin (or are carrying a bisleri bottle), s is 4, if you speak only Hindi s is 5, if you're a foreigner, s is 6.

2. If you can speak the Semmozhi, use these phrases to good effect, "Ennanga, nyaayama sollunga." Or, "Enna emaata paakringla?"

3. If he quotes a recently-changed one-way, or heavy traffic, tell him that the price you've quoted factors in these conditions.

4. Walk away first. Always. Then, when he follows you, ask him to make an offer.

5. Overpromise, underdeliver. If you have to go to place Y, tell him that you have to go to place Y+10. (Or, have a very precise description of the place you want to go to. "South Boag Road la first right cutting. Actor Surya veeduku pakatthila. Pazhaya nagesh Theatre backside." Note: Always use terms that the autodriver will be familiar with - "backside", "cutting". Identifying yourself as one of them always endears them.)

Ludwig said...

[Mami] Kalaks. If you're in the mood to annoy him, one sesky way is to negotiate upwards in increments of Rs. 5. For ejjamble:

He: 90 rupees, saar
You: 30
He (thought process: hmm...he is saying 30, I'll say 80, he'll say 40, I'll say 70, he'll say 50, we'll settle on 60, which is not bad for half a kilometre with the wind in my back): 80 minimum, saar
You: 35
He (WTFeshwara is this creature!):...splutter...

At this point, the space-time continuum breaks down in his vicinity and his brain congeals into a mass of pongal like matter. A strange, uncomprehending look happens to his face...

tris said...

I want ladies auto-driver.!!

Anonymous said...

I dream of a auto-fare cellphone app -- even if it cannot give THE fare, at least a good anchor fare?

Note the interesting constraints such a gadget would put on the auto free market. For instance, if everyone uses the app, and everyone knows everyone uses the app, the band in which the magic number can move becomes rather restricted. Also, if that happens, the people who enter the auto market would have expectancies within that band, which would make the auto experience more user-friendly.

Anonymous said...

Looks like the autofare app is here: