There was a time when taxi and auto-rickshaw drivers in Mumbai were the informal city guides, trusted to safely take commuters from one destination to another and, at the same time, regale the interested ones with tales – historical or factual or apocryphal – of the localities, streets, houses and notable people who lived there. It was a fine way to become friends with the city. In a crunch, they knew the short-cuts to get from one point to another. The language they spoke in did not really matter.
In the 1980s, Sikh taxi drivers could introduce this city to migrants and tourists in a way that trained guides could not match. Many culinary treasures on the streets of Mumbai were discovered with generous help from Maharashtrian auto drivers whose opinions on vada pavs in the suburbs did not make it to food guides. The language hardly mattered, their knowledge of the city’s roads, their commitment to the job did.
Over the decades, the trades passed on into the hands of migrant men from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They knew less about the city’s streets than their passengers, they knew next to nothing about the city itself. It mattered that they refused fares on a whim, that they did not know the city, or did not have the background checks to make passengers feel safe. The fact that they did not know Marathi or spoke only in Hindi was secondary, if at all.
In reviving the debate over the language that taxi and auto drivers must know, and making Marathi an essential condition to obtain permits , the state transport minister and Shiv Sena veteran Diwakar Raote took the focus away from the set of core issues that now plagues the trade: safety, assured rides and affordable rates. Predictably, his decision that knowledge of Marathi is an essential condition to get an autorickshaw permit has been challenged in the Bombay high court.
In its defence, the state government offered two rationalisations. First, that the law requiring permit-holders/drivers to have a ‘working knowledge of Marathi’ is an old one from 1988 which means the Congress had introduced parochialism in permits. And second, that 70% of the 7,843 taxi permits issued last year were to applicants who did not speak Marathi and were mostly from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, as chief minister Devendra Fadnavis took pains to point out. The worrying part was that nearly 27,000 applications were received, showing the desperation in the job market.
As with the opportunist ban on slaughter and sale of meat during the Jain festival of Paryushan earlier this month, the controversy over taxi and auto drivers knowing Marathi is a needless one. Indeed, the statute on both these date back to Congress governments. Yet the fact is that those governments did not ratchet up the sentiments on the issues or turn them into matters of community and regional pride. Therein lies the rub.
The Fadnavis government appears to cherry pick laws and rules that intentionally provoke sectarian and parochial sentiments, and turn them into a high-decibel, emotional debate. The knowledge of local language is an inclusive and constructive principle in itself. But, as with such issues, this is best left to the individual’s personal domain. When the government enacts laws or digs up old ones to bring this into the realm where it interacts with the individuals – permits, licences, jobs, houses, and so on – it unnecessarily raises the stakes and ruptures social cohesiveness.
Besides, if the issue is that migrants to Mumbai must know Marathi, why limit the requirement to taxi and auto permit applicants, or selectively to other professions? Here, the agenda is laid bare: the move is essentially against the low-income and less-educated migrants from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The driver’s knowledge of the city and driving skills, more than of Marathi, would help improve this vital line of city’s transport.