Conversations with Cabbies: Social Policy Insights

Cabbies or Auto rickshaw drivers from Mumbai to Singapore are the most politically aware and erudite socio-political commentators that one can find as they truly have their ears to the heartbeat of the communities they drive in and unfortunately they are the most undervalued group in the urban ecosystem.

The point of contact/interface between infrastructure and transport policy, local law and order and the community, the entrepreneurial cabbie is a business on wheels. The chatty cabbie is usually interested in a good conversation and passing on his contact details (old school business development ) at least in India and the Gulf, in order to source for a long term ‘Bhada’ or a ride-rent in Mumbai Taxi wala lingo so that he does not have to seek out the retail costumer.

The well informed cabbie with tabs on the pulse on the ground is usually the person with the accurate grapevine regarding illicit activities, election trends or everyday activities in an area. I wonder sometimes, why does not the transport and urban planners of the world, not elicit feedback from these smart men regarding traffic density and other cues while designing, evaluating and planning urban infrastructure. Well, they are a tribe that are highly adaptable as any transport policy change and business model disruption (Think Uber and Radio Cabs) impacts these folks the hardest. The radio cabs have crippled the traditional Black and Yellow Cab (the legendary Kala-Peela) service that is unionized to a former shadow of past, a past where they ruled the roads of Mumbai. Or maybe the Mumbai Taxi wala did not change to the wind of the times. The newer radio cabs are more comfortable than the older ones.

About two years back, I had written two inspiring conversations with two cabbies and one auto rickshaw driver in Mumbai, regarding developmental politics and education as a social elevator. One of the Taxi Uncles I interviewed had a son who went to IIT Kanpur and then IIM Ahmedabad, and ran a private cab service, in addition to driving one himself.

Entrepreneurial cabbies cab earn more than hand to mouth as one Taxi Uncle in Singapore quipped because of the various peak hour, midnight and city area surcharges, but for that a cabbie has to drive for twelve to fourteen hours a day. Older cabbies can’t earn that much as it does not physically permit them to drive that long hours. In Singapore, driving a cab is often a post retirement job (or when you are out of work to pay the bills), and it takes time for the Uncle to learn the ropes, as I recently met a Taxi Uncle who retired a few months back.  Recently, a wise 62 year old ex-business owner Taxi Uncle a few days back discussed Singaporean resilience over the next 50 years in the ride back to Clementi from the central part of the island city:

“Singapore money very strong; Hospitals also run like company. All Indonesian Chinese go to Mount Elizabeth Hospital. Got lot of money. Mount Elizabeth Hospital aka MEH is also called the ‘Most Expensive Hospital’. Singapore General Hospital or Super Good Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital as ‘Ticket to Heaven’ Hospital.”

The cost of Healthcare and Living is an undercurrent in the conversations here. A lot of educated folks drive cabs in both cities, which give an insight in to the kind of elitism which excludes people from white collared work.  A similar emotion is articulated even in Mumbai. Human experiences have a universal connect concerning survival and aspirations. The same socio-economic strata often migrate overseas to do blue collared labour in the Middle East and South East Asia. A fortunate few drive cabs in Dubai and New York, if they can find visa sponsorship.

I have had the most interesting conversations about the September 11th Singapore Elections with Taxi Uncles. I am always asked where I am from and what do I do here, and do I plan to settle down here. An important concern of the times we reside in, I understand.

Someone should do an ethnographic study of the taxi driver community. It will surely lead to some interesting insights. I love the music they play in the cab. Once a taxi driver Punjabi aunty was playing the latest Bollywood tracks, and I felt emotionally transported as if I was in Delhi.

With the era of driverless cars dawning in the next few years, will a huge swathe of people already disenfranchised by the service economy lose their jobs? A point to ponder upon indeed.


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