Friday, March 19, 2010

Delhi sandwich

Delhi autorickshaws Image by Arko Datta/EPA from The Guardian

Delhi's Chief Minister, the unfortunately named Sheila Dikshit, wants a ban on autorickshaws in the capital. Needless to say, this will never happen. It is not the purpose of this post to speculate further on that. I am more interested in exploring the spurious grounds on which this major proposal is based.

Spurious justification No. 1 - they 'pollute the environment'. Later in the report from one's beloved Guardian, it is established that autorickshaws run on natural gas. I did a bit of cross-checking and I find that all Delhi autos and buses have been converted to LPG. This happened as a result of a Supreme Court of India ruling in 1998. Now that I think of it, Delhi doesn't have that same choking air that you get in places with two-stroke autos like Bangkok. I'm an observant traveller but I don't tend to notice what isn't there.

Ms Dikshit is proposing to replace autos with electric cars or cycles, which are less 'pollutant'. Well, having already established there is no emission problem with gas-fuelled vehicles, let's look at the electric alternative. The vehicles themselves may not emit but India's power generation is still more than half coal-fired. I'm no expert but I believe gas trumps coal in the clean energy department. And then there is the problem of there being enough electricity. Power outages are a daily event in India. In fact, you will be told in advance when this will happen so that you can have your shower, charge your phone and light a candle in preparation.

The electric vehicle is good for 'travelling short distances', according to Ms Dikshit. What she fails to take into account is that it's the passenger who travels the short distance. The driver and vehicle are probably doing several hundred kilometres in a twelve or fourteen hour shift. The electric vehicle is good for around 120 kilometres (75 miles) and then needs to charge for six or seven hours.

Autos are not even terribly uncomfortable, unless of course you have five people, a dozen chickens and all your washing with you. You maybe wouldn't want to travel to Kolkata in one, but for two people going from Janpath to Karol Bagh, they're perfect.

Spurious justification No. 2 - that drivers are surly and overcharge. Warning - logic cop is about to make a citizen's arrest. I think we all know that getting a new car will infuse us with the joys of spring but equally the milk of human kindness will sour the minute someone cuts us up in traffic. New car does not equal new personality. If new cars made us more honest, there would be no market for new cars.

I am the wrong person to comment on surly anyway. It's an interesting split in my personality between the 'home me' and the 'traveller me'. Whereas I can leave the house for ten minutes and worry that I haven't locked the front door and assume that the supermarket will overcharge me, the minute I have my passport in my pocket, I trust everyone in all things. This doesn't mean that I suspend judgement. Rarely have I been cheated or endangered. It's just that if I engaged in worry about travelling to a place like India by myself, it would be never-ending.

I have been to Paris loads of times and I have never once come across a grumpy Parisian. In fact I have found them utterly charming and effusively helpful to un homme et une femme. This is because I am very polite and speak appalling French. In Paris you need either bad or fluent French. Middling will simply inflame the natives. The same principle applies in Delhi. Not the French bit obviously, the being very polite bit. Admittedly I was only there for a few days, but I didn't meet one surly individual.

Overcharging? Yes, it's true that few auto drivers have 'operational' meters in Delhi. There are ways around this. You can buy a pre-paid fare, although there aren't many booths. (Now there's an idea Ms Dikshit - my invoice is in the post). The Pants method is easier. You make friends with the people on reception at your hotel. Then, when you're going out, you ask them how much the fare should be. Then you agree the fare with the auto driver before you get in. Remember too that you are talking about tiny amounts of money. You might be interested in this freakonomics perspective on why the behaviour of auto drivers differs between Mumbai and Delhi.

The majority of people taking autos in Delhi are locals anyway. My friend in Delhi tells the driver how much she usually pays for that journey. There's no argy bargy. The arguments for change don't make sense. So, what's really going on here? Ms Dikshit 'has repeatedly said that making Delhi a world-class city is a key aim,' says The Guardian. Here lies the truth. It's a triumph of appearance over functionality. The comparatively tiny upper and middle classes want all Delhi to be New Delhi. The battered autos and their scruffy drivers look a bit too shabby and third world. Yet, they are more than just the heart and soul of the city, they are the veins and arteries too. Anyway, like I said, it will never happen...