Monday, May 22, 2006


Permission to reproduce this article has to be obtained from Hindustan Times

Cab drivers and customers seem to be at loggerheads, like Nana Patekar and John Abraham in Taxi 9211. Here is a peep into the lives of Mumbai’s charioteers
Shevlin Sebastian

“You won’t believe this but yesterday from 9 am to midnight, I did not get a single customer,” says Eric William (60), a taxi driver from Malad. “Today, from 8 a.m. to lunch-time, I managed to get only one.” William has come to Mahim, because of a customer and is about to have lunch in a restaurant when I befriend him. He is of slight build, with greying hair and teeth stained brown by too much smoking.
“There are 60,000 taxis now and 1 lakh autorickshaws,” he says. “So we get fewer customers.” Because of this, drivers tend to overcharge, especially in the suburbs. He gives an example: “If I were to take a passenger from Malad East to West, it will take around 45 minutes because of the traffic jam. Now, if I follow the meter I will get around Rs 45. But the petrol consumed in one hour, costs much more than that, so I will suffer a loss.”
The spotlight has fallen on taxi drivers ever since Taxi 9211, starring John Abraham and Nana Patekar, received critical praise and ‘word of mouth’ buzz, among the multiplex crowd. In the film, Patekar plays Raghav Shastri, a Mumbai taxi driver who locks horns with a rich industrialist’s son, Jai Mittal, played by Abraham, when the latter hires his cab.
However, drivers are none too pleased with the portrayal. Says Munir Ahmed, a young, wiry driver, stationed in Mahim: “No taxi driver will refuse to return a key which a customer has lost, the way Shastri repeatedly does to Mittal.”
Rajat Aroraa, who wrote the original story of Taxi 9211, smiles when he hears this. “Shastri is psychotic,” says the thirty-year-old in his flat at Kandivili. “He is not your average driver. He has done 23 jobs in 15 years and takes his anger to an extreme level. He does not represent the community of drivers at all.”
Driver Mohammed Ustad says the sequence where Mittal keeps throwing five hundred rupee notes on the front seat, to encourage Shastri to drive faster and faster, is unrealistic. For that, Aroraa gives the writer’s explanation: “Suppose, a Tata or a Birla has to travel in a cab and needs to reach a destination within a stipulated time, I don’t think he would have a problem shelling out five hundred rupees notes.”
The official response
One afternoon I go across to the Mumbai Taximan’s Union office on Lamington Road. The room, which I enter, is long and narrow, with three desks placed side by side and at one end, two desks are placed horizontally. There is a garlanded photograph on the wall: it is of the late M.H. Bhaji, a former general secretary of the union. Above a shelf there are dusty files, piled one on top of the other.
Among the people in the office is Shahid Pathan (45), who looks like a villain from a James Bond movie. He has four front teeth coated in a gold-like colour. It happened a few years ago when his taxi hit a bystander, near Tardeo, albeit very gently. “An incensed crowd surrounded me and beat me so badly I lost all four teeth,” he says. “A friend took me to a dentist who made these false teeth.”
The good thing about speaking to these drivers at the union office is that you realise they are aware of the public’s perception of them. “We know that customers get very angry when we don’t agree to go to a certain place,” says Gokul Prasad Tiwari, a driver. “They should understand our situation. After a 12-hour stint, if I am in Vile Parle, and I want to return to Malad and if the passenger wants to go to Bandra, I have no option but to say no. We are also human beings.” On the oft-repeated charge that drivers overcharge, he says, there is always the rate card. “They can check that if they want to,” he says. And as for meter tampering, Tiwari says the RTO should do random checks.
Senior assistant secretary, Valerian Lewis, narrates the familiar, though genuine woes of drivers: “Drivers face constant harassment from the police and the RTO (Regional Transport Office).” As we talk, drivers keep coming in and money is collected and receipts are given. “We liase with the RTO to get licenses renewed and release impounded licenses,” says Lewis, explaining the presence of the drivers. “If a driver is arrested, we go to the police station and get him released.” All this is done for members free of cost but you need to pay the annual fee of Rs 120.
Pathan suddenly jumps up and says that most drivers have a problem with Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) cars. “The car gets much hotter than those run on petrol,” he says. “You can have kidney problems and headaches, and my hair has turned white. The body gets extremely hot.”
It seems to be a valid complaint. Because a day later, when I meet a group of drivers near St Michael’s church at Mahim, all of them concur about the damaging effects of CNG. Says Mohammed Rizwan Khan: “Because of CNG, the skin gets dry and you feel itchy. Our health is being ruined.”
The Southie driver
Outside the Borivili railway station, amidst the black and white taxis, is the lone white and blue Cool cab. Standing next to it is owner cum driver M.T. Damodaran, who is originally from Kerala. Wearing a white safari suit and black shoes, the vice president of the Borivili unit of the Mumbai Taximan’s Association says the biggest blow for him and the other drivers has been the closure of the dance bars.
“We would get customers from Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Baroda, Chennai, Delhi and Hyderabad,” says Damodoran, who has the numbers of 150 customers on his mobile phone. “They would come only to see the dancers and would hire the cabs for the full night. We would charge Rs 1000 for waiting 8 hours. This was a good source of income and now we have lost it.”
The other drivers, standing around, also bemoan the nearly Rs 1000 they have to spend every month on repairs because of the potholed roads. “Even to repair a puncture nowadays costs Rs 40 and, you know, sir, the price of petrol and CNG has gone up,” says Shetty, one of the drivers, as drops of perspiration roll down his face in the noonday heat.
Customer talk
Asked to analyse the type of passengers they get, Mohammed Rizwan Khan says, “Most customers have big egos. The moment they sit in the backseat, they think they own the cab and the driver. Some of them take us deep into the chawl, where there is no place to turn and we have to reverse all the way back.” Says Iftikhar Ahmed, “We prefer neutral passengers, but most of them try to impose themselves on us.”
So what do customers think? K. Bhatia, 76, a semi-retired businessman, wearing a natty brown cap, on an evening walk in Mahim, says the meters on most taxis are unreliable. “Whenever I go to the airport, the charges are always different,” he says. “So, obviously, most meters are tampered with. Most drivers are rude, and lastly, the cabs are rarely maintained properly.”
Software engineer, Himanshu Rana (29), who is sitting on a cement ledge outside the Infiniti Mall at Versova on a humid Wednesday night tells me this story: “A friend’s girlfriend wanted to go to a distant place. She asked a driver and he quoted a very high rate. She asked whether he could reduce the rate. He said no. As she was walking away, he shouted, ‘If you are willing to come, I can take you without any charge.’”
End game
To do this work day in and day out, despite the excessive pollution, traffic jams, heat, dust, unruly cops and passengers must be tough. “No driver enjoys this work,” says Abbas (29), waiting outside Mahalaxmi station. “We are doing it so that we can earn some money.” Majid Ali, a 25-year veteran, who is having tea outside a shop in Bandra, tells me that if I gave him a better job, he would leave the driving immediately.
But there are others who think otherwise. Says Damodaran: “Since, most of the taxis are owner-driven, the great thing about this job is that we do not have any bosses. We can work when we want. We can take a break when we want. There is no better job than this.”

Interview/Kanchan Ganpat Gawde
‘I love driving’
She is the only woman taxi driver in Mumbai. At her home in the Tardeo police compound, with her broad-shouldered physique and confident voice, Kanchan Ganpat Gawde (46) has a dominating personality. Mother of two sets of twins, (three girls and one boy), she has been driving for the past 14 years.
Excerpts from an interview:

How did you decide to become a tax driver?
I love to drive a car, but I could not afford to buy one. Can a traffic policeman’s wife buy a car? My husband’s friend suggested that I should become a taxi driver. That way, I could fulfil my hobby of driving a car and earn a living at the same time.
Do customers react differently when they see that the driver is a woman?
To be honest, I am so involved in the driving, I do not note the reaction of my customers. But over the years, I would wonder about society’s reaction. So, sometimes, I would ask my husband, whether what I was doing was a good or a bad work. He replied, ‘There is no good or bad work. Work is work but when you do it, one should do it with the heart and soul and ignore what people say’.
Have customers behaved badly with you?
So far, nobody has behaved badly with me.
What are your working hours?
I work from 7 am to 6 pm and do long distance trips to Panvel, Vashi, Navi Mumbai, Borivili, Virar, Mulund and Thane.
Is it is advantage that your husband works in the traffic police?
Not really. It is just like in the movies. After the villain runs away, the cop arrives (laughs loudly). To be frank, my husband is so strict that if I do a traffic violation, I am sure he will book me.
Lots of drivers I spoke to, complained of police harassment. What are your views?
The police are not deliberately harassing the drivers. They are just doing their jobs. They have to follow the orders from their superiors. If you do wrong, the police will have to penalise you.

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