Meet Vatsala: Portrait of an Auto-Rickshaw User

Vatsala makes a living doing housework. After she wakes up, Vatsala goes to the tap to get water, takes a bath, prays, cooks the day’s meals for her family and heads to work using an auto-rickshaw. She gets two days off a month, and sometimes prefers to not take-off, especially when her schedule is very busy.

Vatsala is a typical auto-rickshaw user in urban India. The average auto-rickshaw user usually falls into a low- to lower middle-income group but not necessarily the most destitute group. In Rajkot, for example, the majority of users—52.8 percent—earn about 2,000 to 5,000 Indian rupees (about US$40 to US$100) per month.

Along with factors of affordability and time, Vatsala’s decision to take an auto-rickshaw is also influenced by her gender. Even if another transport service can be a cheaper, more predictable and faster way of traveling, Vatsala still relies on the auto-rickshaw, especially because of her fear of overcrowding and harrassment.

“Men push you,” Vatsala explains about her experience riding the bus. Although she wouldn’t be able to afford an auto-rickshaw ride on her own, other women’s reliance on this service makes it easy and affordable for her to share a trip.

Sharing a ride informally with friends or even strangers is not uncommon in Indian cities. Many working class people living in proximity to each other systematically synchronize their departure, so that they can share an auto-rickshaw to reach their place of work quicker. It is also common for drivers to carry extra passengers, as long as the driver earns a higher fare. In many cases, passengers risk their safety by cramming into one vehicle to avoid taking a second auto-rickshaw, which would be an economic burden.

India’s auto-rickshaw industry is strong and well-established, but it is still in need of many reforms. Riders often complain about fare negotiations and trip refusals, and drivers complain about the difficulty of making a living, the high price of fees, and the disorganization of the sector. But commuters and drivers make the best of it, considering that other public transportation systems can be overcrowded and unreliable, with few affordable alternatives for lower income classes.

Two weeks ago, EMBARQ (the producer of this blog), in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, released a comprehensive report on India’s auto-rickshaw industry, “Sustainable Urban Transport in India: Role of the Auto-rickshaw Sector.” The report shows how auto-rickshaws are a necessary part of urban mobility in the country, providing affordable transport solutions to many, but there is still room for improvement. The report provides recommendations on how to reform the auto-rickshaw industry to help  improve the quality of life for drivers and passengers alike.

Download the report here.

Do you connect with Vatsala’s story? Do you have any suggestions on improving the auto-rickshaw industry? Share with us below.

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