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How CNG prices have taken the gas out of Delhi’s auto drivers and their livelihoods

Rajesh Pandey, who plans to go back to Nepal as driving auto becomes unsustainable, says he sits idle during most hours of the day without a passenger in sight.

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Rajesh Pandey, 45, has been driving an autorickshaw in New Delhi for the past 12 years. Originally from Kathmandu, capital city of Nepal, Pandey lives in Shahdara and has to pay a daily rent of Rs 350 to the owner of the vehicle he drives. But recently, he has been forced to contemplate returning to his home country, as the rising CNG prices and dwindling customers make it difficult for him to even earn the daily rent.

Pandey is one of the over 90,000 autorickshaw drivers that dot the roads of the national capital. The yellow and green three-wheelers are the staple mode of transportation for the middle class and are a ubiquitous presence on Delhi roads. However, the recent surge in CNG prices have put a break on their speeding wheels.

Hindustan se ab man khatta ho gaya hai (We have given up on living in India). I will return to Nepal and work there. It has become impossible to live here because of rising prices,” said Pandey. “The prices of CNG are skyrocketing every day and my earnings haven’t kept up. Even passengers do not pay fair prices and bargain hard.”

As of 11 May, CNG is priced at Rs 71.61 per kg in Delhi. Last month, in April, the prices were hiked multiple times. Consequently, auto and cab drivers even went on a two-day strike on 18 and 19 April, demanding a hike in fares along with a reduction in CNG prices.

Another issue facing drivers of three-wheelers is the decrease in customers. With mobile-based apps for cabs as well as the increasing number of e-rickshaws, passengers for CNG-based autorickshaws have steadily gone down.

According to Pandey, he is on the road for 12 hours every day but often idle for half the time because there are not many passengers to ferry. Rohit, another driver, concurs: “There are no passengers on the road. Even those who want to ride in our rickshaws want to go by metre rates because of which we do not get the right fare.”

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CNG price woes and trouble with e-ricks

With global oil prices spiralling due to the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, CNG-powered vehicles have generated a lot of interest among people potentially looking to own cars. However, the soaring CNG prices have put a dent on this interest.

According to Rajesh Pandey, a full tank earlier cost him around Rs 150 but now it can cost him anywhere between Rs 250 to Rs 300, which significantly dents his daily earnings.

Today, he has little choice but to return to Nepal and restart his life there. And he is not happy about it. “Nepal is a hilly and mountainous region. There are less opportunities for agriculture and employment there. That’s why my family shifted to India. But now it is no longer livable here. Everything has become so costly.”

This was a sentiment echoed across the board by auto drivers. Especially because most of them don’t own the vehicles they drive and have to pay a fixed rent to the owners. This leaves little to take back home. Rohit has to pay Rs 300 as daily rent for the auto he drives but he has been struggling to make the payments for the past few weeks.

The fuel struggles are compounded by the influx of e-rickshaws in Delhi, which are often preferred by passengers for short distances. With a shared fare, often as low as Rs 10, many people opt for these battery-operated vehicles over an autorickshaw, where the fare could be three to four times as much.

In 2020, the AAP-led Delhi government also introduced the Electric Vehicles Policy, which introduced a subsidy of Rs 30,000 and 5 per cent interest subvention on loans from the Delhi Finance Corporation on the purchase of e-rickshaws. This was done in a bid to make Delhi the ‘EV capital of India’.

Vinod Kumar, who lives in East Delhi, owns two autorickshaws and he is now contemplating buying e-ricks despite the additional fiscal burden it will be on him. “On one hand, prices of CNG are increasing rapidly and on the other, the Kejriwal government is doling out subsidies on e-vehicles. If CNG prices keep rising like this, I will have to sell both my vehicles and buy e-vehicles, which will impose additional financial burden on me.”

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No relief after strikes

The two-day strike by cab and auto drivers also failed to yield any satisfactory solutions. According to the auto drivers, they were forced to go on strike by the union but it was useless. Moreover, they had to forego their earnings for two days.

“The two-day strike did not help at all. Some people drove vehicles even during those two days,” said Vikram, an auto driver. He further complained that auto drivers do not have a strong trade union, which is the reason their demands were not raised properly. But Rohit noted that while the strike did not bear fruit, the CNG prices have not been increased since then, which is a small victory.

“Due to ever rising inflation, it is becoming very difficult to take care of the family, but what can be done about it now? If I start working in any company, I will get Rs 10-12,000. So, it is better to do this work only. If you do a little hard work, then you might earn enough to make ends meet,” he added.

The Delhi Auto Rickshaw Association’s General Secretary Rajendra Soni had led a demonstration outside the Delhi Secretariat on 11 April, demanding a reduction in CNG prices to a subsidised rate of Rs 35 per kg. He also demanded a hike in auto fares.

On 15 April, Delhi Transport Minister Kailash Gehlot had announced that the auto fares will be revised after a committee is formed to that effect. However, till date, no progress has happened on that front.

(Edited by Rachel John)

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