Mumbai was supposed to be clean, beautiful and bounteous. Spitting in public would draw a hefty fine, film stars were an everyday sight and the buildings were so tall, your cap would fall off as you looked up at them, or so the stories said.
Most of all, everyone in Mahesh Gupta’s village near Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, said that in Mumbai, hard work could bring ordinary men wealth, status and respect.
In 1996, Gupta finally arrived in the city of his dreams. He was a lanky 16-year-old eager to work his way up the ladder. He quickly found work as a grocery delivery boy, then a watchman. But in three years, he watched as the money just disappeared, mainly on rent, food and medicine.
Finally, he found work driving a taxi.
“I thought it would be a step up,” says the 32-year-old, sitting on a drum of paint that serves as a stool in the 80-sq-ft room where he lives. “In this profession, there is neither money nor respect. We are abused by everyone from policemen and commuters to watchmen and young children. Being a driver can kill your self-esteem.”
There are more than 2.5 lakh taxi and autorickshaw drivers in Mumbai, who, over the past year, have been fighting a strident battle with middle-class commuters over fare hikes and fare refusals.
“I have been abused for refusing a fare during my lunch break, and after my shift was over,” says Gupta. “But the commuter doesn’t realise that, even if we are an hour late in handing over the vehicle to the next driver, we have to pay double the day’s rent.”
At the end of each 12-hour shift, the average taxi driver has earned Rs 800 and the average auto driver, Rs 350. Most of this is spent on vehicle rent and fuel (an average of Rs 250 a day for a rickshaw and Rs 600 for a taxi), food and about Rs 550 per month in rent for the tiny slum rooms they occupy in their free time.
Gupta’s home is in Murti Nagar, a sprawling slum near Cuffe Parade. More than 250 taxi drivers live here. Every house is the same — a kitchen counter, a curtained bathing space, a little TV and straw mats to sleep on.
There is no room for cupboards, so all clothes are hung on hooks or strings that line the walls.
While Gupta lives with his brother, wife and four children, most other drivers live in groups of six or more, with day- and night-shift drivers alternately sharing the same space.
“Sometimes, if someone has taken the day off or there is a strike, everyone is at home together and there is no place to sleep,” says Ajit Kumar Singh, 42, a taxi driver from Bihar’s Aurangabad district, who shares a 100-sq-ft room in Murti Nagar with 11 other drivers.
Singh has been a driver since 1991.
“When I began, the minimum fare was Rs 9, but most drivers saved enough to send up to Rs 10,000 home each month. Back then, passengers also spoke to us with respect,” he says. “Over the past six years, inflation has got out of hand, anti-north Indian sentiment has intensified and life has become hell for taxi and auto drivers.”
Says Shivchandra Dubey, 48, one of hundreds of auto drivers who live in Santosh Nagar, a slum inMalad East: “Commuters don’t think about how marginal the fare hikes have been when compared with inflation.”
The daily discrimination they face for belonging — predominantly — to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar is the worst indignity, says Gulab Rajbhar, an auto driver from Santosh Nagar. “Policemen always yell at us, addressing us as ‘Aye, bhaiyye’, constantly shove us or whack us on the back of the head,” he says.
In his tiny room, taxi driver Gupta says he prays every morning for the day to pass without a beating from a policeman.
“I regret moving here,” he says. “But we don’t own land in our village. There is nothing for us back home either.”