Not for hire

What does the phase-out of commercial vehicles mean to the drivers of autorickshaws and taxis that have gone off the road?

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Not for hire

-- if the recent Supreme Court (sc ) judgements are anything to go by, the judiciary in India is increasingly playing the role of the policymaker. Take the case of air pollution in Delhi. First sc ordered closure or relocation of polluting industrial units operating in the capital in July 1996. Then the court , in September 1998, ordered phasing out of commercial vehicles which were more than 15 years old by the year end.

Before the court orders, there were nearly 8,000 taxis and 40,000 autorickshaws plying on Delhi roads. Now there are less than 5,000 taxis on the roads while the number of autorickshaws have been reduced to half.

Following the court orders, the government seems to have woken up to the menace of pollution in Delhi, one of the most polluted cities in the world. It has plans to replace Ambassador taxis with Maruti vans, which give greater mileage compared to other vehicles which run on petrol. Also, to compensate the owners of scrapped vehicles, the government is providing soft loans through the Delhi Finance Corporation ( dfc ), a government-owned finance agency, to owners who's vehicles have been scrapped. Till January 8, 1999, the dfc had financed 342 autorickshaws and 142 taxis. Altogether loans worth Rs 4 crore had been disbursed at an interest rate of 12 per cent per annum. The loans will be available till December 1999.

The junkyard Burari in north Delhi, where the old vehicles are being dismantled at the Road Transport Office ( rto ), resembles an auto graveyard. Over 9,000 autorickshaws have been dismantled so far, states Anup Dhaiya, motor vehicle inspector at Burari. The autorickshaws are sold by the owners directly to scrap dealers, who, with the assistance of transport officials, dismantle the vehicle and its engine. A fixed rate of Rs 1,100 is paid to the owners by the dealers, who send the scrap for recycling. "In order to make sure that no engine part is used again, the transport officials see to it that the engine is broken in such a way that it can only be converted into raw aluminium," says Dhaiya. "The engine number is also noted so that if the engine is being used again it can be identified," he says.

The junkyard in Burari represents the efforts being made by the Delhi government to control pollution in Delhi on the orders of the court. But the labourers involved in dismantling the vehicles work under hazardous conditions.

None of workers had been provided welding masks. They cut rusty sheets of iron with their bare hands recieving cuts and bruises in the process. Further, the junk is transferred from one place to another on overloaded cyclerickshaws and dismantled autorickshaws.
What the order means to some Some of the vehicle owners are satisfied with the deal. Says Devinder Puri, secretary of the Federation of Transporters' Union Congress, "All the taxi operators who had to send their old vehicles to the junkyard are being given soft loans by the dfc . Moreover they do not have to pay any excise duty. A van that would otherwise cost them Rs 1.98 lakh can be bought for only Rs 1.59 lakh."

But not all feel the same. Says Pritam Singh, a taxi driver who was operating from the Malkaganj taxi stand in north Delhi, "The scheme floated by the government for purchase of new vehicles is totally useless for us. First, the rate of interest is too high for any taxi driver to repay. Second, if the maintenance of the taxi and the price of petrol is taken into consideration, a driver will be incurring heavy losses." Pritam Singh was forced to dump his taxi, his only source of income, after the order. Now he has decided to go back to his village in Punjab and practice farming on a small piece of his land he owns. "The government wants us to eat one meal a day and pull our children out from school. I will also have to postpone the plans of my daughter's marriage," he adds.

While the residents of Delhi may heave sigh of relief once the polluting vehicles are off the road, the drivers of taxi and scooters will have to look for alternative sources of employement. The most affected are those who used to drive the vehicle on hire. Not being the owner of the vehicle, they are also not eligible for the loan. Says Mohammed Jamil of Jama Masjid, "I used to hire an autorickshaw from a person called Yakoob Khan who owned 15 autorickshaws. Out of the 15, eight can no longer ply on the roads. Like me, seven other drivers are now unemployed. Now we are waiting for Khan to procure loans quickly so that he can buy new autorickshaws and give them on hire to us again."

Jamil believes that the court order to ban polluting vehicles is a welcome step because it is the drivers who are the most exposed to pollution. But he raises a different issue, not related to the court orders, which he feels has to be addressed at a policy level.

The government had originally perceived autorickshaws and taxis as a scheme for self-employment, he says. "If that was the case, why is it that over 60 per cent of the drivers in Delhi have to rent autorickshaws at a huge sum of Rs 250 per day," questions Jamil. "But like all other 'good schemes' of the government, this too failed," he says with a touch of sarcasm.

Somewhat different is the story of Dhir Singh of the Ahir taxi stand in New Friends Colony. One year ago, he had bought a second-hand taxi on a loan from a private finance agency. He is yet to repay the loan. But his taxi is off the road. He is eligible for a loan as he owns a taxi but he is not sure whether he can afford to buy a new taxi. This would mean repaying loans to two agencies. "If pollution is the problem," which Dhir Singh believes it certainly is, "why is it that the government has allowed the same taxis to operate outside Delhi? Doesn't it mean that the government is taking a 'short cut' by shifting pollution to other cities or villages?"

There were reports in the media that some taxi owners have re-registered their taxis in neighbouring states like Punjab and Haryana and are operating them as private taxis in Delhi. However, this reporter did not come across any such incident. On January 2, 1999, the deputy commissioner of police, traffic, issued a showcause notice to the taxi stands against such practices.

The second stage of the phase-out is scheduled to begin in April 1999 where autorickshaws that are over 12 years old will be dismantled.

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