I had an unusually difficult time flagging down an auto rickshaw this morning; there seemed to be very few of them passing by, and those that did were all full. I spent fifteen minutes flapping my arms on the side of the road to no avail, and I finally just gave up and took a taxi. When I got to work, I discovered that most of the Delhi auto unions have declared a two-day strike.
The reason for the strike? The unions are protesting a recent government crackdown on drivers operating without licenses and/or pollution permits. To hear the union representatives tell it, auto drivers are afflicted with a strange condition that causes them to chronically "forget" to bring their driver's licenses with them, and so when the mean ol' Delhi Traffic Police slap them with a fine, they have no alternative but to rip off their innocent passengers in order to pay the penalty. You see, it's all the government's fault--the drivers are just looking out for the welfare of the common man.
In all seriousness, there are legitimate reasons to sympathize with the auto drivers: their government-mandated meters only charge based on distance, so the drivers aren't compensated for time stuck in traffic (which in Delhi can be considerable). I have also heard that the meter rate of 4.5 rupees per kilometer is simply too low, which is possible--I don't know enough about gas prices and the fuel efficiency of rickshaws to say one way or the other.
However, I am utterly without sympathy for drivers who complain about being fined for not having a license. With India leading the world in road deaths, it is unconscionable for auto drivers to skirt regulations and drive without being properly licensed--it puts everyone else on the road at risk. In any event, I don't think the strike will be very successful in putting pressure on the government: everyone I know holds rickshaw drivers in such low regard that they're firmly on the side of the city in this matter.
--Update August 18, 2009--
There were even fewer autos on the road today--any drivers who chose not to strike yesterday were run down, dragged from their vehicles, and beaten up by the striking drivers. One of my coworkers actually managed to take an auto to work; the driver told her that he couldn't afford to strike because he had too many family members to feed, but that he was willing to risk driving her because he didn't think anyone would dare attack him while there was a Westerner in the back seat. He charged her double though. I was told by a driver that the strike would end tomorrow; hopefully that's true. I did see a few autos starting to trickle back onto the roads this evening.--End Update--
On an unrelated note, a statement I made in an earlier post might have given some people certain ideas about my relationship status. I don't want this blog to get sidetracked by personal issues, so the post in question should be taken as just a simple story about a conversation I had with a shopkeeper. Any assurances in the story were made to the shopkeeper, and not the reader.