What Accounts for the Difference in Autorickshaw Driver Behavior in Mumbai and Delhi?

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A reader named Abhishek Rawat writes in to describe, and then solve, a puzzle he has noticed in his native India:

In India all major cities have public transport vehicles called autorickshaws. They are mounted on three wheels, operate on very low horsepower, and have a center of gravity that allows them to swivel in impossible twists around the traffic. In short, they’re the perfect transportation vehicle for people who do not have a personal transport and do not wish to take the bus.

The case I point to is the curious behavior of autorickshaw drivers in Mumbai and Delhi, or rather the difference between them.

According to law, autorickshaw drivers must only go by the meter reading that is reported after a commuter’s trip is finished. However in Delhi, there are hardly any autorickshaw drivers who go by this law, and instead they quote nefariously high prices. In Mumbai though, no matter what the time of the day or night, the drivers go by the meter.

I am from Delhi and live in Mumbai now, and I just love the Mumbai driver way that is honest and forthright. The reason that I came up with for explaining the difference is that it can not be a cultural phenomenon. Since autorickshaw drivers consist of the mix of race, class, and caste in both Delhi and Mumbai, cultural upbringing can be nullified as a reason. What can be the reason, though, is the number of people who use rickshaws in Mumbai compared to Delhi. Mumbai’s prime mode of transport is public services, of which rickshaws form a major component. So you would find Mumbai overpopulated with not only people, but also rickshaws. Delhi, though populous, is far greater in size, and alternatives always exist for rickshaws; hence their numbers pale in comparison to those in Mumbai.

I figured that since competition in Mumbai is so high, if all rickshaw drivers compete with each other to quote low prices, they all will make losses. Hence, they all follow the government mandate and quote only the meter-reading prices. However in Delhi, where there is not such huge competition, drivers actually “play the customer” with the customer and quote high prices and attract the ire of the public.

So in essence, the same pool of people in the same line of business behave differently under different economic conditions and are therefore perceived differently by the public. Is it then that economics can shape human behavior, which in turn can later shape business practices? For example, if tomorrow the metro is introduced in Mumbai, cutting hundreds of autorickshaw jobs, would the rickshaw drivers still go by the meter reading? Something to ponder about!

I like Abhishek’s theory just fine. I’d also consider at least three more possibilities:

1. Difference in enforcement of the law and associated penalties in Mumbai vs. Delhi.

2. Whether drivers are independent or belong to fleets, and if perhaps those fleets have strong relationships with enforcement agency/ies.

3. Although Abhishek discounts “culture” since “autorickshaw drivers consist of the mix of race, class, and caste in both Delhi and Mumbai,” this doesn’t mean that one city’s professional culture doesn’t differ entirely from another. Many things happen in New York — jaywalking, e.g. — that don’t happen in other U.S. cities.

But I’m sure there are many other possible explanations. For those who know, or care to guess, please illuminate us. Do recall that not all transportation in Mumbai reeks of such honesty; earlier, we learned that some train travelers who ride the trains without tickets buy insurance against the possible penalty of getting caught riding without said ticket.

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  1. Paul says:

    I’ve had to haggle with rickshaw drivers in every Indian city I’ve visited, and Mumbai is no exception. It’s definitely something you just get used to over there (especially as a white guy).

    But more importantly, how do you explain the crazy driving those guys do?!? Some of the most frightened moments of my life have been in the back of an Indian rickshaw.

    (and yet, I never experienced an accident…)

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    • Shaveen says:

      I’m from Sri Lanka, and my experiences with the three-wheeled kind has being far from boring. The three wheels drivers here, toss and turn the traffic, and squeeze through not near impossible gaps, but impossible gaps. Yet I recently visited Chennai, and my view of extreme driving changed completely. Chennai is home to the three-wheel dons. Racing away through the dusty streets, these maniacal drivers get you from A to B in X min seconds :P The adrenaline rush is to die for, but I’m worried that the die part would become literal! The guys ran three red lights and swerved into incoming traffic, stopped at my halt, raised both his arms and gave me a huge wide grin. Speechless! Also to note: None of their metres function!

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  2. ChrisD says:

    I’ve read a few books about the different types of ‘underworld’ controls or Mafia activity in Indian cities on various industries.

    Perhaps we also need to consider this?

    Isn’t Mumbai famous for having an almost charitable Mafia system?

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  3. EP says:

    The culture aspect is probably not limited to the drivers, but extends to the customers. I do not know what each city is like, but in America a customer would be more likely to be swindled in a city like NY than in a quieter large city such as the Twin Cities.

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  4. tarvinder says:

    i too am a delhi guy now living in mumbai.

    regarding your points 1. & 2., i dont think there is much difference between delhi and mumbai in terms of enforcement agencies (or the lack of them) or autorickshaw driver unions.

    though as mentioned in point 3, i do think there exists a difference in the professional culture of mumbai and delhi which must contribute to this phenomenon. after a certain point, anyways, its all about what the others are doing – since in delhi, nobody goes by the meter, and even the public seem to have resigned to the fact, therefore it perpetuates.

    i would like to point out one thing that although autorickshaw travel is much better for the average guy in mumbai rather than delhi, its not perfect. even in mumbai, the autorickshaw driver will ply to the destinations he wants to ply to, and not to any destination desired by the traveler. now, there are some enforcement agencies that can be contacted, both in delhi and mumbai, if the autorickshaw driver refuses to ply or does not go ‘by the meter’, however, hardly anyone actually bothers to contact the enforcement agency, instead choosing to go to one of the other plying autorickshaws

    overall i do buy the theory, the lesser competition in delhi, could have been the reason for the start of this phenomena in the two metros, and then status quo continued in both

    tarvinder

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  5. Ben says:

    It would be interesting to learn the percentage of tourists using the rickshaws in both cities. If the ratio of locals to tourists is higher in Mumbai, that may help explain some of the difference.

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  6. matthew says:

    Isn’t more types of transportation still competition?

    I suspect it might have to do with tourism as well, but I don’t have those numbers.

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  7. Eric M. Jones says:

    The presumption that cities are the same is some regard is probably fantasy. Even the presumption that the same city is the same in all its burbs or over a long period of time is probably fantasy.

    Delhi is like a nightmare NYC. Mumbai is like LA in many respects AND 20 degF cooler to boot. Why shouldn’t they be different.

    Boston and NYC are quite similar in most respects, but I’d rather get run over and have my wallet stolen in NYC. People in NYC are human, people in Boston are wannabe humans, or maybe not even that high out of the dirt. They’d drive around you if you were lucky and it wasn’t rush hour. Ahhh…civilization is a such delicate flower.

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  8. Harrkar says:

    I would say, Culture and Legacy, plays major part in behavior of the people.

    Chennai and Bangalore or typical examples, equivalent to Delhi and Mumbai. ( in the same way)

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