Gramin Sewa autos chug on despite unchanged fare
Most drivers have operated the autos at a minimum fare of ₹5 for the first 3km for 12 years now, even amid the sharp increase in fuel prices
It is a sweltering May afternoon and Radha Krishan is sitting in the driver’s seat of his Gramin Sewa auto, waiting for passengers near Peera Garhi Metro station in west Delhi. There are seven other such autos—all painted white and blue with green stripes---behind him waiting to take passengers. Soon, a middle-aged couple, ignoring all entreaties by autorickshaws and e-rickshaws to hire them, gets into Krishan’s auto, which runs on route number GS -136.
“None of them will take me to Nangloi for ₹5. I have been availing the Gramin Sewa auto at this fare for almost a decade,” says Ramesh Shooken, a resident of Nangloi.
For the uninitiated, Gramin Sewa —a para-transit scheme -- was launched by the Delhi Government in 2010 to improve connectivity in unauthorized colonies and rural areas. Today, the city has about 6,153 registered Gramin Seva autos operating on 166 routes— authorised by the transport department. A lot of Blueline bus operators, which were phased out by 2012, got the permits under the Gramin Sewa scheme. Krishan, who drives a Gramin Sewa auto, once drove a Blue Line bus.
Even as fuel prices have soared like never before, forcing Ola, Uber and auto drivers to demand yet another fare hike, Gramin Sewa fares have remained unchanged over the past 12 years: ₹5 per for the first 3km, ₹10 for up to 7km and ₹15 above 7km—making it the cheapest mode of public transport in the Capital along with the DTC buses.
While these Gramin Sewa autos --- Mahindra or Tata Magic vehicles which are a common sight in areas such as Dwarka, Najafgarh, Peeragarhi, Narela, Mayur Vihar, Seelampur, Shakarpur, among others-- continue to attract commuters mainly because of the cheap fare, their owners and drivers say constant hike in fuel price over the years without any increase in their fares have driven them to despair. Interestingly, many say raising the fares might only deepen their problems.
“When I started driving these Gramin Sewa autos, CNG used to cost ₹21/kg; today it is almost ₹76/kg. While the government has increased the auto fares at least six times, there has been no hike in our fares in the past decade,” says Krishan, perspiring profusely inside his vehicle.
“My income is down from ₹1,000 a day--about six years ago--to ₹300 a day now,” he says. “But I am not sure if increasing the fares would help. Mostly poor or lower middle class people looking for last mile connectivity avail our facility. They would immediately switch to battery-operated rickshaws or buses if they have to pay more, ” says Krishan.
Twenty minutes later, Krishan’s auto has six passengers, the maximum passengers allowed by the government to be ferried in these vehicles. However, he would start only when he gets six more passengers. But is it not illegal? “There is no other way we can sustain ourselves with the current fare,” he says.
Bablu Sharma, among the youngest drivers at the Peeragarhi, interjects to explain the economics of running Gramin Seva autos at ₹5.
“We need about ₹65 worth of CNG to cover one way and supposing everyone travels the maximum distance and pays ₹15, we collect ₹90 from six passengers and make only ₹25 for a one-way trip, which takes about an hour and a half to complete, including the time it takes to get six passengers. I manage to do about only seven trips in a day, so you can guess my income if I were to carry only six passengers. We must carry at least 15 passengers to run the vehicle at ₹5, and make some profit, ” says Sharma.
Most Gramin Sewa autos have reconfigured the original seating arrangement to make room for as many as 16 passengers -- a violation of permit conditions. Besides, many of them are plying on routes other than those permitted.
Sanjay Batla, spokesperson of the Gramin Sewa Sangharsh Samiti, an association of Gramin Sewa autos, admits there are violations. “Many of them are overloading, working overtime, plying on unauthorized routes, but things are not working out. A large number of Gramin Sewa autos are already off the roads as financially, it is not viable to run them. The auto drivers lost half their passengers after the government made DTC rides free for women. Soon, they will lose the remaining passengers as the government has now made DTC ride free for construction workers,” said Batla.
Amit Kumar, another driver, says most drivers do not own the vehicles they drive and the owners charge exorbitant rents of ₹700 to ₹800 a day. But Vinod Negi, who has rented out his Gramin Sewa vehicle to ply on route number GS 16 between Mukhelpur to GTB Nagar--a distance of 16km-- for ₹600 a day, says, “The owner has to take care of maintenance and many compliances, such as insurance and fitness test. The routes need to be rationalised. Route GS 45 between Burari to Timarpur, for example, had about 80 Gramin Seva autos, but hardly 20 ply now. The rest are parked or had to be scrapped because there were not enough passengers on the route,” says Negi.
“ Then there are too many Gramin Sewa autos on some routes. For example, there are over 250 of them on route GS 16 and route GS 66, which runs between Nathupura to GTB Nagar,” says Negi.
It is five in the evening and there are 50 Gram Seva autos lined up near Dwarka Mod Metro station —most plying on the route number GS 104 between Dwarka Mod and Deen Dayal Upadhyay Hospital.
Ramesh Kumar, who has been waiting for an hour to fill his auto, says he has had several loyal customers for a decade. “What also helps is the fact I own the vehicle that I drive. So, I still manage to make about ₹700 a day, though I was making about ₹1200/day until 2018 when CNG was about ₹50/kg. I will keep the fare at ₹5 for as long as possible, irrespective of whether the government increases the fare or not,” said Kumar.
A transport department official, who did not wish to be named, said. “The Gramin Seva operators had a meeting with us before the pandemic with the demand to raise fares. We conveyed to them that since they are covered under contract carriage, the government cannot fix their fare. It has not fixed fare for any contract carriage in the city.”
Batla acknowledges the government’s stand. “ We were also told that we could raise the fares if we wanted. We conveyed the decision to Gramin Sewa operators and drivers. Some raised the fares, most did not and continue to run at a minimum fare of ₹5 for fear of losing passengers.”