Sain Ullah Khan, 65, has been driving a taxi in Mumbai for 35 years, but his life was turned upside down during the COVID pandemic in 2020. Lockdown two years ago took away his income and savings and now he is troubled by high compressed natural gas (CNG) prices.
âI used to take Sunday off before lockdown and only work until noon on Friday but this has not been possible for the past two years. If I take a break now, we’ll stay hungry. Eid is the only time I can afford a vacation,â says Khan. Having to work without a day to relax has taken a toll on the health of taxi drivers like Khan. “I have terrible pain in my waist and back, I’m functioning on some medication the doctor gave me,” he says.
There were about 56,000 black and yellow (kaali peeli) taxis in Mumbai until 2016 but the media reports suggest that number fell to 44,566 in 2018-19. The number of auto rickshaws registered in Mumbai has increase in recent years, in 2016 the number was 1.06 lakhs and in 2019 the total was 2.07 lakhs. The city one autowallahs and taxiwallahs switched to CNG in the early 2000s after a Bombay High Court Order; it quickly became the preferred alternative to diesel or gasoline as it offered better mileage at a relatively cheaper rate.
Read more: Last mile connectivity remains an issue for Mumbaikars
Rising CNG prices
In the past, CNG price increases have been slow and steady. For example, from 2011 to 2012, the price for 1 kg of CNG was between Rs 30 and Rs 35 and it gradually increased and touched Rs 48 in 2021. In March of that year, the base taxi fare was increased to Rs 25 from Rs 22 and the base fare for autorickshaws was increased to Rs 21 from Rs 18 to match the rise in CNG prices.
Contrary to the previous trend, the price of CNG rose rapidly to Rs 80 per kg a year later, while the base tariff remained the same. The price hike started in April this year when the central government increase the price of domestic and imported natural gas by more than 110%. The report also says Mahanagar Gas, the distributor of CNG and piped natural gas in Mumbai, attributed the rise in CNG prices to a sharp rise in other required costs as well as a decline in the value of the rupee.
The Mumbai Taximen Union demanded a rise of Rs 10 in the base fare and called for an indefinite strike on September 15. However, the strike was postponed after various union members were promised a raise in the next 10 days during a meeting with Maharashtra’s Minister of Industry, Uday Samant.
Shortly after the meeting, the Minister tweeted, âToday a meeting was held at the ministry with representatives of various rickshaw-taxi associations. The unions decided to call off the strike on the 15th. During the meeting, fare hikes, welfare council, vehicle loans, rickshaw stands, parking stations and the appointment of study groups, among others, were positively discussed. Harshdeep Kamble, Principal Secretary (Industries), was unavailable for comment while Ashish Kumar Singh, Additional Chief Secretary (Transport and Ports), was unreachable on available phone numbers.
“They haven’t told us how much the tariff will increase but I’m sure they will keep their word and increase the price in the next few days,” says AL Quadros, general secretary of the union.
While speaking to this reporter at the Taximen union office in Mumbai Central, Quodros, 80, slams his hand on the desk when asked what the union will do in case the government fails to provide relief and said, âThey can’t do this. I have warned them twice that I will call a strike. If this happens, taxi drivers all over Mumbai will stop working as long as I tell them to stop.
The Union has now called for an indefinite strike from September 26, after having waited a week in vain for the announcement of a price increase.
Everything is expensive today
âWe used to save around Rs 400 to Rs 500 per day earlier, but that has now stopped. When the CNG cost 48 rupees per kg and the meter was 25 rupees, we could do a good 100 kilometers with 400 rupees. The amount earned was used to cover our expenses as well as the expenses of the taxi owner,â says Sanjay Gupta, who has been driving a taxi in Mumbai since 2004.
He points out that it’s not just CNG prices that have risen dramatically, but also the cost of auto parts needed for maintenance and the prices of other commodities. âWe are facing losses of at least Rs 350 every day. I am constantly under pressure. Income should increase over time, but it is the opposite now,â he says.
GNC Subsidized Pricing Application
Drivers are desperate for a ride at this point, but they’re also worried about the repercussions. “Now when the meter goes up, people will be hesitant to pay that much and won’t use the service for a while,” says Gupta.
Some, like Shashank Rao, leader of the Mumbai Taxi Drivers Union, believe subsidizing CNG is the best way forward as passengers won’t have to bear the brunt of high fares. However, Quadros chose to take a rather pragmatic route. âWe have advanced the grant application, but there is no point in insisting. The GNC grant has never been awarded before. What’s the point of pushing for something the authorities will never accept? I don’t want my people to go hungry while waiting for a grant,â he says.
Meanwhile, Rao is clear on his position – the GNC grant is a must. âWe continue to increase the demand for grants precisely because they have never accepted it before. Until the subsidy proposal is not approved, there must be an increase in tariffs according to the Khatua committee,â he says.
The committee Rao refers to was appointed by the Maharashtra government in 2016 to come up with a tariff formula. Among others, headed by retired bureaucrat BS Khatua, the committee report calls for an immediate tariff increase when CNG prices cross 25% of the last review.
Even after the government announced a fare hike, it is very likely that people like Khan will continue to avoid taking a Sunday off to cover their losses to the detriment of their well-being.