The Truth Behind the Strike

In a recent guest post, SIMON HARDING of Delhi’s AMAN Trust had explained why Delhi’s autowallah is not the villain he is made out to be but a victim of the Delhi government’s policies, the Supreme Court’s whims and the financier mafia’s greed. In this post he writes about the strike by Delhi’s auto drivers yesterday and why a majority of the drivers were not in support of it.

Yesterday there was an auto strike in Delhi. The city was crippled. Taxis tripled their fares and buses ran full to bursting. The strike, called by Rajendra Soni of the Dilli Autorickshaw Sangh (DAS) and supported by many other auto unions, was well observed with few drivers plying the streets. The striking unions demanded that Sheila Dikshit retract her recent comments about “phasing out” autos. They also called for a raise in the meter fare (Rs.4.5 per km) following an increase in the price of CNG.

Whilst it may appear as if Delhi’s one lakh auto-wallahs successfully collaborated to paralyse the city and create a major headache for the public, the real story of the strike – and the numerous auto strikes of the past decade – is very different.

There are as many as twenty auto-rickshaw unions in Delhi. But membership is low: the three biggest unions have a combined following of around 2000 drivers. Most unions are single charismatic individuals who know how to “get things done” quickly at the Transport Department (licences, commerical badge applications etc). These one-man-unions have miniscule memberships, little concern for driver welfare and no support amongst drivers. During six months of interviewing auto-drivers, their views on Delhi’s multiple auto-unions ranged from ignorance to outright contempt.

But if membership is low and driver support lacking, why was the strike so well observed? The answer is simple: drivers stay off the roads, not out of support for the strike, but due to fear of violence and “hood slashing“. Union leaders hire hooligans to wait at strategic points in the city and slash the yellow plastic hoods of autos breaking the strike. The goons often rough up the driver too. Sometimes even breaking bones. Most drivers are too frightened to work.

So who does the strike benefit? An increase in the meter fare does nothing to help drivers! An increase in driver earnings will quickly prompt the contractors to hike daily rents on their fleets of rented autos in order to capture the increase. Higher fares will also inflate the price of an auto permit even further (currently at Rs. 3 lakhs), providing a nice pay day for auto-financiers who control Delhi‘s artificially limited supply of permits. The strike is in the interests of financiers and contractors. So does this mean that the striking unions are the stooges of the “auto finance mafia“?

There is a strong case for the prosecution: a recent PIL in the Supreme Court filed by an auto-rickshaw NGO called for the court to lift the current limit on the number of autos. Lifting the cap would decrease the cost of an auto and auto rents, benefiting drivers. The PIL was opposed by the financiers, who profit from the inflated permit prices caused by the cap. At the last minute, the leader of one of yesterday’s striking unions changed sides. He crossed the floor and threw in his lot with the auto-financiers and opposed a PIL that would bring massive benefits to drivers. This strongly suggests links between some auto unions and auto financiers.

The wider political dimensions of the strike must also be examined. The DAS is part of the Bharat Mazdur Sangh, an thus has ties with the BJP and RSS. Indeed, the DAS office is opposite BJP HQ at Ajmer Gate. Anything that disrupts public life in Delhi whilst the Congress is in charge is political fuel for the BJP.

Whilst Delhites may curse auto-drivers and hold them responsible for the strike, most drivers did support the strike, stood to gain nothing out of it and spent the whole day at home out of fear of hired thugs – a day without any income.

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