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The Mumbai Project: Changing Mumbai’s taxis, Singapore style

india Updated: Dec 15, 2007 17:25 IST
Neha Bhayana
Neha Bhayana
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

Dressed in a crisp grey shirt and olive-green trousers, taxi driver, Mahendra Gupta (44) effortlessly manoeuvres his new power-steering-equipped Maruti Esteem. The air-conditioner keeps him cool. A slight tap with his right foot and the power brake halts the car. Gupta is 200 km down today — and he’s looking like the day has just begun. ( Check out the special on The Mumbai Project )

A small smile plays around his lips as he looks at the sparkling dashboard. A sticker says, ‘Mumbai Gold Cab’, as it has since July 16, 2006. That’s when Gupta — and Mumbai — began a transformation that’s only now gaining ground.

A migrant from Uttar Pradesh, Gupta still shudders when he remembers the 24 years he sat in the furnace-like Premier Padmini he owned, waiting hour after sweaty hour for a client. On a good day, he earned Rs 170.

“Better to be a moneyed servant than a penniless prince,” said Gupta, who lives in a chawl in the central suburb of Worli. “Now I take home at least Rs 12, 000 and the company has bought me medical and life insurance worth Rs 7 lakh.”

Gupta was one of the first black-and-yellow taxi drivers to trade his rattletrap for a job with Gold Cabs. He realised long ago that no one wants to ride in the rickety Padminis, an Indian variant of the Fiat 1100D, first produced in Italy in 1962.

Early last year, the Maharashtra government also woke up to the realisation that the decrepit black-and-yellows just don’t fit in with Mumbai’s Shanghai dreams. Mumbai — with 44,000 taxis for a population of 14 million — has more cabs than any other city in India, and perhaps the world.
New York City (only the metropolitan area) has 12,000 taxis for a population of 8.2 million.

But only 30 per cent of Mumbai taxis are operational at any point of time; others are parked on roads, hogging precious road space, or on “dry runs”, without passengers.

Singapore has 23,348 taxis, according to June 2007 figures. These taxis make about 23 trips each daily. On a good day, Mumbai’s taxis make no more than six. “We needed to improve the taxis and the efficiency of the service and make it more profitable for drivers too,” said Sanjay Ubale,
the Maharashtra government’s secretary for special projects.

So, in June 2006, the government did what Singapore did in the early 1970s. It kickstarted the taxi modernisation project by clearing taxi fleets. The plan: Private companies would obtain licences from existing taxi owners, buy new cars, arm them with Global Positioning Systems (so they could be tracked by satellite) and radios and set up call centres to direct them to passengers.

With 55,000 permits issued — the last in 1997 — there was no question of issuing any more. According to government estimates, more than 10,000 of these permits are not in use either because they were not renewed or because the drivers had died or gone out of business. The new fleet operators were expected to obtain these ‘dead’ permits. Or, they could buy permits from current taxi drivers and absorb them into service. “We could have issued new licenses, but we did not want the black-and-yellow cabbies to go out of business,” said Ubale, the architect of the scheme.

Lots of resistance followed, with unions declaring ‘Singapore-style nahi chalega (We won’t let the Singapore model work here)’ and even threatening the new fleet operators. It did not work.

That’s how you now see the yellow Gold Cabs, the olive-green Meru cabs with new Maruti Esteems and even individual drivers in smart blue-silver cars. And, despite a flag-down fare of Rs 15 and Rs 13 per additional km — black-and-yellow taxis charge Rs 13 per 1.6 km — Mumbai is lapping up their services.

The Gold and Meru cabs — 300 in all — are all pre-booked. Fulora Foundation, which runs Gold Cabs, says it gets at least 400 calls a day. V-Link, which runs Meru Taxis, says it receives 700 to 800 calls.

During morning and evening peak hours, it’s hard to get a taxi from either company. Both plan to roll out more cabs. Most commuters are satisfied. They may not be perfect (See: One woman’s ride) but they are a far cry from the doddering, stinky Padminis.

A few impressed commuters like Vikas Chowdhary, owner of software firm Aurovision and resident of Napeansea Road, have even stopped using their cars. Chowdhary has fixed a Gold Cab to take him from home to office in Worli and to meet clients all over the city from there.
“The price-value proposition of the new taxis is good,” said Chowdhary, who now uses the travel time to work on his laptop.

Chowdhary remains an exception, though the state government hopes more will follow his example in a city of 1.56 million vehicles — with 500 being added every day — including 7.5 lakh cars.

That’s unlikely. For any public transport facility to be successful, people need to be dissuaded from using private transport. Maharashtra is not going to do that.

When Singapore upgraded its taxi service in the early 1970s, and more forcefully from the late 1980s, it also made it very difficult to own and use a private car.

Moreover, since 1990, the Singapore government has set a cap on the number of private cars: 4.5 lakh. If you want a car in Singapore, you have to bid at an online auction, held every two weeks.

The permit for an average mid-size car goes for about $10,000 to $15,000 (Rs 4 lakh to Rs 6 lakh, enough to buy a small car in Mumbai), depending on the size of the engine. If that isn’t discouragement enough, there are duties, steep parking charges and congestion tax. “While in Mumbai we pay about 7 per cent excise duty on cars, in Singapore there is a 150 per cent duty, the car permit costs about 20 per cent of the car price and there is a Rs 50 parking charge per hour, plus congestion charge,” said transport expert Ashok Datar.

Neera Punj, convenor of NGO Citispace, has lived in Singapore and recalled her efforts to buy a permit. “I ran from pillar to post but could not get a permit,” said Punj. “Buying a second car was even more difficult. Eventually, everyone opted for taxis because they were affordable."

This explains why personal cars are rare, and the income of Singapore taxi drivers has increased 20-fold over two decades. The point is simply to make taxis better, cheaper and simultaneously (that’s the key word) discourage private transport.

In a reply to an application by Datar under the Right to Information Act, the state said there were no plans for even a congestion charge.
Asked why, Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh told HT: “It would be improper to charge something like congestion tax unless we upgrade the public transport system so people will keep their vehicles at home.”

Disincentives, experts say, can never be proper or convenient. As Punj put it: “The state needs to think of the good of the city before the good of the people.”

Worlds apart: One woman’s ride

Neha Bhayana travelled to office in a black-and-yellow and a private taxi to experience the difference

Day 1

I walk out of my Breach Candy building, cross the road, and spot a black-and-yellow. I open the door and get inside. Is the seat clean? Is it clean and dry? I always run these checks.

Not so long ago, I jumped into a cab without realising the seat had absorbed gallons of rainwater. I had no choice but to go for an interview with an extremely embarrassing wet patch on my jeans. So, I always check. I try to roll up the window, expertly turning the broken handle. The glass isn’t coming up straight and quickly jams. I give up and look around: The cab has neat, maroon velvet interiors and printed seat covers. This cabbie keeps his cab well, unlike most others. I am grateful for that. There’s a traffic jam, but the cabbie is a gentle, old man. He doesn’t stare at me — like so many do — through the rear-view mirror. I have no complaints, except for the seat. It seems to have lost its cushion. Or maybe the cab has lost its suspension. I arrive at the office an hour later with an aching back.
The cost: Rs 93

Day 2

I dial a 10-digit number and a pleasant female voice greets me. They have a Meru available at 2.30 pm for my ride to work. I will be sent the car number and details by SMS at 2:15 pm. The message doesn’t come, but the cab is at my building 10 minutes before time. As I go down the elevator, I dream of the door being held open for me by a driver who greets me and smiles. Instead, the driver points to the door and gets in wordlessly. Then, he talks: The meter is broken. What! Wasn’t the new fleet taxi scheme all about electronic meters, printed receipts and, therefore, no cheating? Of course, this is an exceptional case. My mother, who has taken a Meru many times, swears by the service. So do many others. The cabbie tells me we will multiply the kilometres by the Rs 15-per-km fare. I remind him it’s Rs 15 for the first km and Rs 13 per km after that. He doesn’t say anything. The interiors are quite comfortable, but not immaculate as I imagined. There is dirt on the back of the front seats and a peeling sticker that informs commuters all fares are metered. Whatever! The air-conditioning works; it’s definitely comfortable. “Ten kilometres,” the cabbie says, “That’s Rs 145. Rs 130 for 10 km at Rs 13, plus Rs 15 flag-down.” Wait a minute. “It’s Rs 15 for the first kilometre and Rs 13 for the nine after that. Rs 132 total,” I say, annoyed. I insist on a receipt, so the cabbie writes me one.

For more details:

Check out the special on The Mumbai Project