of autorickshaws, millionaires and freakonomics – Part 2

Carrying on with the question Dubner asked on Freakonomics last week.

I’m going to take a rather different view to Abhishek Rawat. In essence, Abhishek states that the differences between autod drivers in Mumbai and Delhi are down to the greater numbers of autos and thus greater competition for fares in Mumbai. While this is true to some extent, I don’t think its the key reason for the differences between the 2 cities.

I currently live in Mumbai, grew up in Bangalore and have visited Delhi several times. Bangalore was a good case study since about 15 years ago, Bangalore’s autos were very similar in nature to Mumbai’s autos today. They were friendly, safe cooperative and went strictly by the meter. Now they are probably as bad if not worse than Delhi’s. Today it is near impossible to get an auto (or ‘ric as we refer to them) to a) go where you want to and b) go by the meter.

If I were to compare Bangalore today with Bangalore of 1990, the major difference is population and accompanying traffic. It is just a lot harder to get around by road in Bangalore than it used to be.

Anyway, enough rambling on Bangalore. The reason for the difference between Mumbai and Delhi’s ‘rics today and Bangalore’s ‘rics over time is this:

1. Competition among autos: As Abhishek said, Mumbai has the highest density of autos in an equivalent area of all three cities. Walk to any intersection and there are between 5 and 10 ‘rics, atleast, competing for you to ride with them.

2. Alternatives: I think Abhishek has got this point reversed. In Mumbai, modes of Public transport are:

a. taxi – the Central Business District to the northern suburbs and further on, essentially the entire city

b. auto – only the suburbs, about half the city. After specific points, autos can’t go south into the city.

c. local trains – the most heavily used option which connects the entire city together and very much the one thing that keeps Mumbai going.

d. local bus: a massive network that goes everywhere and integrates with inter-city bus lines.

All these alternatives have been around for decades. In Delhi, there are buses and now a metro, both of which are, compared to Mumbai, more recent options. Bangalore has no viable alternative to autos today.

So the result of that is a person is much more dependent on autos in Delhi and especially Bangalore than in Mumbai. If an auto driver were to ‘put up their price’ in Mumbai, commuters would just walk by and use something else, like the bus or train. Also, road transport, due to traffic jams is not as fast or as reliably on time as the trains in Mumbai. So these competitors have inequalities other than price.

3. City culture: Culturally, Mumbai is like New York. Delhi is like Washington DC. Bangalore is like a cross between a Florida beach and silicon valley. People are a lot less tolerant of time-wasting-haggling in Mumbai and will show their displeasure.

4. Economic demographics: This, I think is an important point and one which is bound to be quite controversial. Mumbai is a lot, lot more crowded than Delhi and Bangalore. People from the corporatized (and equivalent) middle / upper-middle class (in terms of buying power) form a far larger section of the population in Delhi and Bangalore than they do in Mumbai. So the market for autos in Delhi and Bangalore is a lot more tolerant of paying 10-20% over and above the meter.

So there you have it, as an auto driver in Mumbai, you are facing a potential customer who is financially and culturally much more reluctant to bargain than in other cities, competing with alternatives which on a speed aspect are superior, are limited geographically and you also have a lot more ‘colleagues’ driving their own autos around looking for a fare.

of autorickshaws, millionaires and freakonomics – part 1

Stephen Dubner of Freakonomics has been asking some pertinent questions here and here.

As an Indian living in Mumbai, I need to weigh in on both these posts.

*********Potential Spoilers**********

What do I think of Slumdog Millionaire? I think its great. All in all, I really liked the movie. What struck me immediately after I finished watching was that it’s pretty much a hybrid of Hollywood and Bollywood filming aesthetics.

The portrayal of the slums is something that’s caused a good bit of controversy. As a mumbaiite for over 18 months, I can say thisĀ  much: it is real. In Mumbai, the portrayal of the slums is pretty accurate to real life, right down to the public ‘toilets’. Therein lies the problem. Mainstream bollywood typically deals in escapism. Bollywood deals with exotic locales, fast cars, mansions, and fresh-faced and well-dressed actors. of both sexes. Bollywood deals in weak plotlines with a lot of laughs and really really happy endings. So I’m not surprised the depiction of the slums is slightly too big a dose of realism for the stereotyped bollywood audience.

The story itself, is a classic bollywood line. The only thing more cliched in the industry than forbidden love that ends happily ever after is a forbidden love triangle that ends happily ever after. As Dubner rightly mentioned, it does feel forced and predictable in parts and wallows in excessive melodrama. That it wasn’t an out-an-out bollywood flick and did have some external influences did protect it from something overtly ridiculous like the protagonist driving a Ferrari at some point. While there’s nothing wrong with such a plot and is justifiably popular with the indian populace who watch movies for ‘time-pass’, I’m not surprised that there are people who don’t like the plot.

So to whip out my stereotyping brush and paint in broad strokes, there’s a demographic who probably prefer the greater realism of hollywood and liked the depictions itself and were rather underwhelmed by the plot and another demographic who resented the hard gritty depictions of Mumbai but loved the warm, fuzzy feel-good plot.

Me? I hope like a lot of other people, fall somewhere in the middle.

*****End Spoilers*****

I’ll post my thoughts on Dubner’s other question a little later. Probably during lunch.