Auto-rickshaws and the bargain of Delhi life


I told the auto-wallah my destination and he told me to take a seat. That was it. No argument. No bartering. No nothing. I was taken off guard.

Years of experience taking auto-rickshaws in Delhi had taught me not to accept a ride without negotiating a deal. I didn’t wish to be in a situation where I was over-charged after the journey, just because I hadn’t made a deal with the driver in the front-seat before we’d begun.

“How much will it be?” I asked him.

He looked bemused. “However much it comes here,” and—without a hitch—he turned on his metre. I would be paying the regulated ‘proper’ price for the journey. There would be no debate, no wasted time, no sour moods. It was going to be unusually smooth sailing.

To be honest, I shouldn’t have been totally surprised. The reason the auto-wallah followed the rules of his trade is because we were in Mumbai, not Delhi. A whole new world. Sometimes, it feels like the only thing in common between two of India’s largest metropoles is just that: that they are two of India’s largest metropolises.


Otherwise, the personalities of the cities are starkly different. Some prefer one over the other. Delhi has its own advantages of course: it is a city more interested in the national political structure, more invested in its local civics. Its close to my beloved Himalayas and offers some of the best Punjabi and Mughlai food in the world.

Mumbai was always the more professional city to me, where things worked as they should (more than Delhi at least). It’s safer for women, seems to have a better nightlife, and is at closer proximity to the beaches down in Goa and Karnataka.

It is this professionalism of Mumbai that naturally extends to its local transport: it’s taxis, it’s local trains, and its autos. The auto-wallahs in Mumbai were generally more polite than their counterparts in Delhi, less likely to hustle or expect to be hustled, more likely to ensure that they did their job right.

Delhi, to anyone who has experienced the shared three-wheelers, is a different headache. Every trip in an auto is an unnecessarily long and often nonsensical negotiation. Most auto-wallahs are offended to even use their metres. Many pretend that it doesn’t work. The asking price is always too high, and the patience for negotiation is always too low.

This personality isn’t necessarily the auto-wallahs fault all the time; they are simply a natural extension of the character of the city where they have to survive. Delhi is an unkind city to everyone, but especially to the poor. Living costs are expensive and jobs are limited. There is cut-throat competition for everything college seats and job placements to seats on the crowded Metro lines and parking spots in every colony. Crime is high, and so is the potential of crime, so very often, every man or woman must fend for themselves in the hostile environment. There is a huge income disparity between the rich and the poor, and a perceived class disparity, leading to uncomfortable shared public spaces – like auto-rickshaws.

Many of the factors stated above ail nearly every metropolitan city in the world, including Mumbai. But what sets Delhi apart from its southern cousin is a more aggressive attitude towards privilege: those who have it believe the world owes them much more, and those who don’t have it cut every corner possible to become one of the haves. On the everyday ground level, this leads to distrust and quarrels.

Much of the modern ‘Delhi attitude’ was written with brilliant insight and research by Rana Dasgupta in his 2014 book Capital. After the Indo-Pakistan Partition of 1947, Delhi’s population was ballooned with the influx of refugees. These resettled folks, who had lost nearly everything to their name, carried mostly the burden of trauma. In starting a new life in Delhi, their priorities shifted into survival mode, to do anything for money, to figure a way out to keep their families above water in the challenging times ahead.

The trauma gave many of these people a tougher outlook and personality of life, with the will to do whatever it takes. This ‘toughness’, by osmosis, slowly became a personality of the city itself. Half a century later, as the economy opened and the gulf between the rich and the poor widened even further, newcomers had to be tough to assimilate and make a living here. They had to become Delhiites—in the best and the worst that that term has to offer. 

It is under this stifling atmosphere that a simple negotiation like ‘how much to pay for the auto journey’ because a competition, too. Everyone wants to ‘win’ the trade, or at least feel like they’re winning.

With a new host of industries energising nearby Gurgaon, Noida, Faridabad, and Ghaziabad, the entire extended Delhi-NCR region has become a major commercial hub. But the fortunes of the city’s occupants haven’t necessarily grown in sync with the city. Every time a generation of people feel that they’ve finally found their footing in the city, a new cycle emerges, with many more migrating from smaller towns in search for work.

The going, of course, is tougher for the uneducated. They join the labour industry to build skyscrapers and malls around NCR; they hope to earn work as domestic staff for the middle class and rich; and those with a little bit of money invest it into buying or sharing an auto-rickshaw.

When taking an auto in Delhi, it becomes obvious in no time if my driver is a newcomer in the city, or an old head. New migrants are unsure of the ways around town, especially the Lutyens area where “everything looks the same”. The experienced ones have been through the rigours of many Delhi seasons and are able to keep up with the city’s rapid’s pace of development. The eldest gentlemen, those with decades of auto-ing around the city behind them, have often reached a state of bittersweet acceptance: they don’t argue for small bits of money because the energy isn’t worth the profit.

According to certain (outdated) estimates, there are nearly 4 lakh auto-rickshaws ploughing through Delhi’s roads right now. This is technically only a small percentage of overall registered Delhi traffic (which is over 1 crore registered vehicles). But somehow, auto-rickshaws continue to be ubiquitous around this city, used by almost all of the financial classes residing in the city—except for the extreme rich and the extreme poor.

One of the reasons of the ubiquity, and downright necessity, of the auto-rickshaw service is Delhi’s inconvenience as a city for those without vehicles. Even with the game-changing advent of the Delhi Metro and buses shuttling residents around the city, the city is spread out and massive, and many of the locations for work and home are inaccessible to common people. The auto is often the first and/or last leg of any daily journey, completing the distance between the metro station or bus stop and the final destination.

Most of the people who can afford cars in Delhi have cars. And those who can afford two get two. And, so on and so forth. It’s a different city when seated in a fast-moving, close, air-conditioned vehicle. The harsh summers are a little more tolerable. The world’s worst pollution outside the car window feels somewhat harmless.

The autos might have a canopy overhead and the sides, but the open ‘entryways’ for both the driver and the passenger can’t shade anyone from the harsh elements of the city outside. That aforementioned pollution has indeed been topping the charts globally in recent years, often giving Delhi the undistinguished honour of the worst air-quality in the world. PM 2.5 particles make the air dense and heavy, destroying the lungs of exposed citizens over time.

The pollution is worse during the winter season, when fumes from burning crops from the West add to Delhi’s heavy air, and the stillness in that air doesn’t clean up the industrial pollution that has increased multi-fold over the last few years of development in and around the city. These winters, additionally, get surprisingly cold, too: not as much as for those shielded indoors, but for auto-wallahs, who race day and night being slapped against the freezing wind, the season can be torturous.

Spring is fine but short, because soon, here comes the North Indian summer, where the air is hotter than a furnace, where hot winds gurgle through the atmosphere as if there’s a heavenly blow dryer fanning over the city. Temperatures reach up to 45, 46, 47, 48 degrees Celsius at their peak. The heat causes discomfort and thirst and strokes and disarray. It’s almost unbearable. But if they need to work—the auto-wallahs work.

By the time the monsoons come around, the city finds relief in long spells of rainfall, drenching the city, lowering temperatures, but adding new challenges to the lives of those who live the exposed life closest to the streets. There are waterlogged streets, drowning autos in dirty rainwater and overflowing sewages, stopping traffic, destroying engines and tyres, hurting movement and visibility, becoming an expensive headache. This is disease season in Delhi, too, reading like a long list menu of the most depressing restaurant in town: dengue, chikungunya, diarrhoea, typhoid, cholera, malaria, jaundice.

Those who survive the calendar year without losing their faith do so because the city keeps on needing them, relying on them to chug them along. In recent years, however, a new challenger has emerged to disrupt the auto-wallahs comfort zone: ride-hailing companies like Ola and Uber, which have become a cheaper and easier option than traditional taxis in India, and slowly become common in every major city. Autos are still a cheaper option than Olas and Ubers, but the latter are less complicated and more comfortable for most passengers, and thus, many are willing to spend a little extra to avoid the discomforts—of environmental exposure and price-haggling—of an auto-rickshaw.

Ride-hailing has disrupted the traditional auto and taxi business in Mumbai and other cities, too. So, this reasoning doesn’t really explain the stark attitude differences in hailing an auto in the two cities.

Mumbai, as I mentioned earlier, is generally more pleasant in terms of auto price-haggling. The price is the price. Rarely have I come across an auto or taxi-wallah in Mumbai whose metre has mysteriously stopped working. Although there are occasions when the drivers will take a longer route to run up that perfectly-working metre. An added complication, however, is that many parts of the city (the posh south-of-Bandra) simply don’t allow three-wheelers. What one gains in temporary piece of mind, one must pay back in this inconvenience.

Additionally, the traffic in Mumbai is a well-documented nightmare; the Local Trains are always a better option if you don’t mind being hurled in a rigid human molecular structure, pressed together with strangers, occasionally being molested or robbed or both.

Mumbai, like Delhi or any other metropolitan, has its massive share of migrant populace, too, chasing the big city dreams. Like Delhi, Mumbai has a complicated history of violence, displayed here specifically through regional chauvinism, a distrust of all outsiders, and inter-religious tensions.

And yet, it has a starkly different personality from Delhi. And different doesn’t necessarily equate to better or worse. If people in Delhi seem rude or uncouth in their first impression, many have shown to have a warmer core inside, blessed with that legendary North Indian hospitality where they will go the extra mile for you “once you get to know them”.

My Mumbai experience with strangers has generally been more pleasant at the surface level: I don’t expect warmth, I expect professionalism, and the city usually delivers. The warmth here, too, comes with a little familiarity. It’s different from the Delhiites but special in its own way.

I’ll mention one more major way in which the auto-rickshaws in the two cities reflect the culture of the regions themselves. In Delhi, the obsession—it being the centre of our government and all—tends to be politics, and it’s even more so when we’re close to around the dreaded election seasons. In the lead-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, for instance, nearly every auto-driver looked to strike up a conversation about the polls, about the rights and wrongs of the various parties, about cult leaders, of promises made and promises broken.

Mumbaikars have little time for all that. Life is too fast, too stressful, too insane. The obsession here—mirroring the glamour of the city—is the ‘filmy’ side of life. Bollywood is always around the corner. The songs on the radio. The homes where A-listers reside. The B-grade stars spotted randomly crossing the street. Bollywood is the perfect antidote to the tensions of life, a fairy-tale that Mumbai can see up close and personal.

After day after day of the Delhi aggression, I find relief the ‘no bargaining’ policy of Mumbai transport. But there’s a part of me that, perhaps sadistically, enjoys the Delhi experience, too. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to start up a conversation (or some may say, an argument) with a stranger, a haggling fit that usually leads to talk about politics or weather or sport once the first veil separating the driver and the passenger has been lifted. Perhaps it’s just my own personality—carved by Uttar Pradesh and peppered in with some Delhi—that allows me to empathise with the rickshaw-wallahs and relish the challenge of a needless argument.

It’s the worst and I hate it. But also, it’s fine. I understand; many citizens (passengers) like me have the privilege to refuse, to barter, to contemplate, to choose between one option and the other. These are minor headaches in the larger migraines of life that most auto-wallahs face daily. I wold prefer the Delhi attitudes to be more straightforward, more professional, to feel safer. And the occasional encounter with a pleasant Delhi auto-wallah goes a long way to improve everyone’s state of mind.

The city and its auto-experiences shape us as much as we shape it back. I would like it to be better. And perhaps, help make it better by being a better passenger myself. But for now, the city—with all its flaws—is the city. Living here is a bargain we all have to make.