Auto-rickshaw: Yesterday, today and tomorrow

The 3-wheeler is as old as 60 and has transformed into one of the most reliable urban modes of transportation

After growing for a decade, 3-wheeler exports dip 46% in Q1FY17

New Delhi
The next time you hop on a 3-wheeler, spare a thought to its history. Our humble 3-wheeler or auto rickshaw, as we colloquially call it, is as old as 60 and has transformed into one of the most reliable urban modes of transportation.

One of the most widely-used modes of transportation in metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore, these 3-wheelers have given taxis a run for their money on more than one occasion. So much so, that the app-based taxi services tied up with auto wallahs to bring them on board. Both Uber and Ola currently function as taxi and auto aggregators.

Ola app for auto-drivers is available in 8 Indian languages including English, Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu.

Ola, with a fleet of about 1.25 lakh 3-wheelers, is one of the leading app-based auto aggregator. The other players in the segment are Uber and Jugnoo.

Sundeep Sahni, vice-president (new initiatives), Ola, believes that the autos or 3-wheelers were getting stronger and under Rs 6 per km they are still cheaper than the taxi.

Experts believe that 3-wheelers would always remain a cheap and reliable mode of last mile connectivity, even in cities like Mumbai and Delhi which have robust mass transport systems in place.

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Hailed as the most economical and local way to commute, autos play a pivotal role in India’s transportation network.

Bajaj Auto introduced the country’s very first auto rickshaw in 1959. The government initially licenced the company to make 1,000 autos a year. Hero Motocorp, TVS Motor and Atul Auto are some of the other players that are currently making 3-wheelers in India.

According to a report by ratings agency ICRA, India has emerged as the largest 3-wheeler industry with industry volumes of 9.4 lakh units in financial year 2014-15.

In the last decade or so, the Indian 3-wheeler industry grew at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 8.9% in unit sales driven by steadily rising exports as well as domestic demand, the report added.

As per the last published report on the auto rickshaws in India i.e. EMBARQ India in 2012, autos constitute merely 2-3% of total urban transport in India; but account for close to 20% of passengers travelling intra-city.

The report said production of auto rickshaws has doubled between 2003 and 2010. It suggested that strategies to improve urban transport must include a policy vision for this sector.

According to EMBARQ data, the market size of auto-rickshaws in cities varies from 15,000 to 30,000 in tier II cities (population between 1 and 4 million) to more than 50,000 in tier I cities (population greater than 4 million). The auto-rickshaw sector provides employment to an estimated 5 million drivers in India.

Some skeptics believe that nothing much has changed for the auto rickshaws and some have even questioned its safety aspect especially in densely populated metro cities which grapple with traffic snarls on a daily basis.

But the three-wheeler has stood the test of time and is depended upon by majority of the city dwellers, for them the auto rickshaw continues to be the quintessential mode of transport.

Auto rickshaw drivers have also influenced the outcome of Delhi elections. Considered as a vote bank to the ruling Aam Aadmi Party, the 3-wheeler drivers have many times been blatantly supported by the state government.

In February, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal came out in support of auto rickshaw drivers protesting against the central government’s proposal of mandating class 8 as minimum qualification for obtaining auto rickshaw driving licence.

So what does the future hold for the auto rickshaw? The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP) of the Ministry of Urban Development is the guiding policy at the national level, focusing on urban transport in India.

With the underlying rationale of people-based transport planning, the NUTP framework focuses on planning and investments in public transport and non-motorised transport systems in cities.

In order to sustain this mode of transportation, the need of the hour is reduction in carbon emissions with the help of improvements in engine technology and progression in vehicle design such as seat belts and padding on stiff surfaces, the report said.

First Published: Jul 25 2016 | 12:52 PM IST

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