MY TAXI RIDES IN MUMBAI – The economics of Radio Taxis

      I have often wondered how the taxi drivers earn their living. What strata, class, caste, region or religion do they belong to? What personal, family or social life they have? On the other side of the coin, how do the taxi companies earn their money? Having lived in Mumbai since 2005, I have seen this change happen albeit slowly. More often than not, I have talked to the taxi drivers whether the quintessential old taxis “black-yellow” ones or those plying the new Radio taxis. Over these five years, I have, you may say, seen the city through the lens of taxis and taxi drivers, evolve, change, deteriorate call it whatever you deem fit, in its political and economic life. Now that the Radio taxi has come to my hometown Bhopal, I thought of narrating the whole experience.

      Most of the black and yellow taxis run on hired basis i.e. a person, who has a license for driving a taxi, hires it on a daily basis mostly either for the day or the night session. He pays somewhere between Rs. 250 to 300 for the shift. Since, the demand from drivers coming from UP and Bihar is high, the prices keep inching up only. The states of UP and Bihar with their backward economy do not offer enough employment hence a number of young men migrate to cities like Mumbai leaving behind their family in villages and small towns. Not surprising, there have been increased instances of passenger driver fights over fast meters, refusing to ply small distances etc. In fact, recently, during a check up by the traffic department on the Haji Ali – Worli road, half the taxi meters were found to be running fast. With high supply and limited taxis, the earnings can be under pressure. These men, mostly 6-8, live in a shared accommodation in small rooms measuring barely 100 square feet, all in the hope of sending some back home for their family. They visit their families for a month in a year. This is how a person earning barely 8000-1000 rupee manage to live in a city like Mumbai where cost of living, especially the accommodation is prohibitively high.

      It would surprise the younger generation that Radio taxis faced stiff opposition in initial days from the unionized black n yellow taxis, who thought they would rob off their business. However, the Meru Radio taxis were introduced in a very slow fashion even as court orders were used to retire old black n yellow taxis. A typical Meru Radio taxi driver pays nearly 800 rupees to the company, pays for the gas and earns over and above that. He runs the taxi for 14-16 hours in order to earn nearly 500 rupees a day. He has to pay nearly Rs. 2000/- for the three dresses that the company provides, Rs. 500 for the shoes and Rs 10,000 for training that the company gives him. If the taxi develops snag at times, he bears all the losses though company gets it repaired at their own workshops. The most surprising thing is that out of 2300 Meru taxi drivers, less than 100 are Marathi, nearly half of the remaining Muslims and remaining Hindus. Most Muslims and Hindus belong to UP and Bihar. Even the Marathi drivers don’t come from the main island city but from interiors and adjoining districts, where they may not have enough jobs. No Marathi local driver would be willing to work 14-16 hours a day to make a living especially at the cost of his personal, family and social life. However, those working in calls center are mainly local Marathis and Gujrathis with their fixed salaries. Now that the Meru taxi drivers have formed their union supported by Shiv Sena, they have little problem from the taxi operator’s side.

      From the commuters’ point of view, the Radio taxis offer a comfortable AC, safe and a reliable journey with well-behaved drivers. Their meters are fool-proof and the taxis are tracked through GPS. If you have done the booking though the calls center, then your name, address and other contact details are with the company. Moreover, the difference in fares between the AC Radio taxis and those of Black n Yellow taxis without ACs in minimal. The black and yellow drivers and especially their meters had become too unreliable with every second one running fast. Especially at Railway stations and Airport, more and more people prefer Radio taxis after many bitter experiences with black and yellow cabs and also Cool cabs. However, the Radio taxis don’t take passengers over small distances – especially through their calls centers. Moreover, with Radio taxis taking their own passengers, the calls center via passengers have decreased. Hence, more often than not, you may find long queues over phone booking and more often no spare taxis. However, seeing the demand, the number of Meru taxis have risen to 2300 and the other two small operators Mega and Easy cabs too account for nearly 900 taxis. However, with no new licenses issued, the black and yellow taxis, which mainly cater to short distance commuters, have reduced thus creating problem for daily commuters.

      With Indian economy growing at 8-9% per annum, the Radio taxis are being introduced in every Tier-I and Tier-II cities of the country. However, little would we know those behind the wheels, their lives and the sacrifices they make.