IN DECEMBER 2013, news bulletins on local Guwahati television broadcast snatches of a song that had just been released to the media by the city’s District Transportation Office (DTO). The song immediately caught the attention of the city’s autorickshaw drivers. Its melody was exactly that of ‘Autorickshaw Solao’ (“We drive autorickshaws”), a 1968 recording by the legendary singer Bhupen Hazarika and his brother Jayanta that is still a favourite among Guwahati’s auto drivers today. “We drive autorickshaws, us two brothers,” the Hazarikas sing in Assamese, “touring around Guwahati city … my brother is MA-pass … we are the educated unemployed, but do not harbour any ‘complex’ against this work.” “I ask my brother sometimes,” the song continues, “will your girlfriend marry you, now that you did not become a professor?” “She understands the dignity of labour,” comes the reply.
The lyrics of the DTO version, however, strike a different tone altogether.
Brothers … Drive ahead, obeying all vehicular rules and regulations.
Auto drivers have earned a bad name … they charge irresponsible rates …
Can’t you give passengers a glimpse of your goodness?
Ashim Saikia, the enforcement officer at the DTO who wrote the parody, told me over the phone that Guwahati’s auto drivers “rarely charge according to the meter” and customarily oppose efforts to enforce fare discipline. “The drivers had approached the Guwahati High Court contesting our earlier directives, but the court ruled in the government’s favour instead,” he explained. Under that ruling, auto drivers have until March to update their meters to charge Rs 30 for the first 2 kilometres of every trip, and Rs 15 for every kilometre thereafter. Meanwhile, the DTO has released 50 CDs of Saikia’s version of ‘Autoriskshaw Solao’ to encourage compliance.
Autos first arrived in Guwahati in 1969 as part of an official scheme launched the year before to employ university graduates who could not find work in the few suitable job openings available at the time, mostly in state government and industry. Ownership permits and auto-driving licenses were reserved for these “educated unemployed”, but many graduates were still reluctant to take up the positions. The Hazarikas released ‘Autorickshaw Solao’ to change that.
A year later, auto drivers set up the Guwahati Auto Owners’ Association (GAOA) to defend their interests. At the GAOA’s offices in Ganeshguri, a bustling commercial area, the association’s welfare secretary, Ranjit Das, told me that Bhupen Hazarika even took an auto out for a spin in a show of solidarity in 1969. “It’s particularly ironic that a song that Bhupen-da composed to support us is being used as a weapon today to humiliate us,” he said. Manjit Dutta, an advisor on the GAOA’s coordination committee, showed me a draft of a forthcoming public circular that details the expenses and incomes of autorickshaw owners and drivers. It showed a steady decline in earnings to only 3.33 times the cost of fuel per kilometre based on current rates, compared to up to five times that in the past. The court-mandated rates, Dutta complained, did not account for rising fuel prices, time and fuel lost while stuck in traffic, a high annual road tax, and other costs.
Manjit Roy, an auto driver working mostly in Kahilipara, a middle-class residential area, echoed those complaints. Roy said auto drivers’ incomes have fallen since radio taxis and “trekkers”—jeep-like fourwheelers that carry up to 15 passengers—were allowed to ply on Guwahati’s streets, threatening the demand for autos. And, according to the GAOA circular, these new modes of transport are allowed to charge anything between five to 16 times the cost of fuel per kilometre. “Whose conspiracy is this,” the circular asks, “which seeks to destroy a historically significant avenue of employment for the educated unemployed?”
The DTO, however, dismissed allegations of a conspiracy. “We have made provisions to charge extra for waiting time, night charges, etcetera,” Saikia said. “Perhaps auto drivers should have been given greater representation while … deciding the rates. But … the rates in themselves are not unfair, and there are provisions to charge higher when [fuel] prices rise.”
The GAOA has grudgingly accepted the court ruling, but continues to feel threatened. “Our bigger concern is … that the District Transport Office has for some time now not issued any new permits for autos in [the centre of] the city,” Das said. The GAOA is currently preparing to demand that Guwahati ban trekkers, taxis and other new means of public transportation.
What would Bhupen Hazarika have made of the DTO’s use of his song in the current standoff? Das insisted that Hazarika would have disapproved. Saikia, however, argued that his parody pays tribute to the power of the maestro’s legacy.
Ragini Bhuyan is a Delhi-based journalist. She reported from Germany as part of the fellowship Media Ambassadors India Germany 2015.