India Insights: Autorickshaw Paradox

They are noisy, cheap, ubiquitous, dirty, crazy and yellow.  And necessary.

As the title of this posts implies, “they” are autorickshaws.

And they are presenting me with a unique paradox.

Anyone who has traveled in India will understand what I am thinking tonight.  The autorickshaw is a necessary evil in my new Hyderabad life.  I am staying far enough from the office such that I can’t walk, and there’s no reasonably easy / safe bus route to take me, either.  Cabs are too expensive and frankly, the cab companies don’t like to dispatch their guys out here, either!  So it’s either a 2-hour walk to the office, or a 20-minute ride in an auto (local shorthand for autorickshaw).

I also take autos to dinner, social events, business meetings, to the park for a run…you name it.  So I probably ride in an auto on average 4-5 times per day.

Of course, autos are metered, and they’re relatively cheap.  12 rupees is the drop rate, and the rate goes up by distance traveled or waiting time.  Basically, it’s a New York City taxicab except without doors, air conditioning or the annoying TV advertising thing blaring at you in the backseat (thank god for the off button in NYC cabs…ugh).  South Asian drivers talking on hands free cell phones…well you didn’t hear it from me, but it’s certainly 1 similarity between the two cities.

Anyway, back to my point…the meter.  It is a wonderful thing because you know you are being treated fairly.  But that’s just not how it happens.  If you are a foreigner, the auto driver will claim that the meter is broken, kicking off a negotiation.  Now I love to negotiate, but this is annoying.  I know they are trying to rip me off, and I hate getting ripped off.  I know that a fare is supposed to cost about 40 rupees – when the driver asks for 150 rupees, I am offended.  This happens at least 4 to 5 times a day…so after 3 days, it’s already gotten pretty old.

Am I right to feel so indignant?  Or is it just the market at work, setting prices based on slightly more perfect information?  After all, I AM a foreigner and I can – based on my appearance – afford to pay a 2x-3x premium for auto rides.  Yes, it adds up and yes, it is irritating…but really, I wouldn’t notice the difference in my retirement account or anything…we’re talking maybe 250 rupees per day – a shade over 5 dollars’ difference.

So the economist in me sees some beauty in this.  And the ethicist / development person in me sees the auto drivers as very poor.  Studies show that auto drivers make around $4 per day, after costs, which puts them squarely in the “bottom of the pyramid” market segment I am committed to serving.  As such, should I mind paying a little extra if I know that it’s going to a low-income family whose primary wage earner is so earnestly trying to rip me off?

It’s tough.  I haven’t figured it out yet.  But I’m thinking about it…and I’m also thinking about finding alternative transportation.  Or is that just a cowardly way of avoiding the Autorickshaw Paradox?  We’ll see.


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Twitter @robertkatz
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11 Responses to India Insights: Autorickshaw Paradox

  1. Dad says:

    Buy your own auto and charge others as you drive to work, buy a bicycle and risk instant death by crash or long term death by smog, ride a water buffalo, etc. There’s LOTS of options! Tee-Hee! Love ya! Never rode an auto myself, but autos with more than 3 people in the back a truly a sight!

    LuvYa, Dad

  2. Mom says:

    How safe are bicycles? How far is 4 miles in the intense traffic that I hear exists in the cities? Would you look like an alien if you wore a helmet and pedaled to the office? I guess you look like an alien anyway, so why not?


  3. Judith Katz says:

    This is exactly the paradox that I struggled with in Cairo, thuogh there it is every taxi cab whether great or small. The negotiation over the “broken meter” is a global phenomenon!

    Just a note re bicycles…if the traffic and driving behavior are anything like Cairo, I would never advise riding a bike there. A helmet would be scant protection. Ask Granpa Lou about his experience as my passenger in my spiffy but scratched Peugeot 505, a grand vehicle by any measure!

  4. Wilma suggests buying a new $200 car and driving yourself, which might involve some risk, we realize! The open cab looks pretty nerve-wracking to me, but I would probably just pay the fee whatever is it, to get to your destination safely. Over the next year or so, you will begin to look less like a foreigner and more like a member of the community so perhaps you won’t continue to be ripped off. Consider it a donation to those less fortunate — a non-reimbursable business expense!! xxoo

  5. robertkatz says:

    Thanks everyone for all the suggestions…am considering lots of different transport options and will keep you posted. But bike would be suicide…and car might work, except parking can be a nightmare. I’ll write more as I figure stuff out.

  6. Peter says:

    Economics vs. Ethics–a conundrum of democracy since the Greeks.

    Is there a plethora of cabs when you head off to work or home? If so perhaps holding a sign saying “if your meter is broken, I’ll pay xx, you pick a number between the established rate and the attempted highway robbery, [pun intended] for a trip to your office.

    Or establish a relationship with an entrepreneurial driver saying you’ll give him an exclusive contract for XX rupees.

  7. Mom says:

    I like the new look! Are you using or Maybe you can give me your 2 Rupees offline about the new version and hosted vs. self-host?
    Yes, fuhget about the bicycle, please! An alternative for your consideration:
    How about negotiating with one particular driver to pick you up every morning at a designated time? You could then negotiate a daily rate that is higher the meter and at the same time, allows you to save face and Rupees. Because you probably don’t leave work at a designated time, it may be more difficult to contact “your” driver, so in the evening, you would be subject to “The Paradox…”
    Days getting shorter here, flowers are drying-up and mums are becoming available. Have fun, do good works and be safe, m’hijo…xxxooomom

  8. Minna Katz says:

    Grandpa finally read your blog re those little yellow”autos”.
    Had a good laugh,imagining you riding in one of those things!!
    Has no idea of how you are going to manage the conundrum of balancing the needs of the drivers,and your wish to help,but still not happy about being ripped off,or the daily bargaining!!Being “the other” is always hard!!
    I think the idea of a contract,for a fixed price,with one driver,might just be the way to go.
    I would also think that a local friend might be able to get a better price for you!!
    Have another week of interesting happenings!!Stay safe!!
    Grandma and Grandpa

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