Delhi The chai whalla was doing well because the meeting was starting slowly as drivers finished their last “school” runs and began drifting into the recruitment meeting in this section of East Delhi. It was a good spot across the thoroughfare from the licensing building where we had blocked traffic recently in protest of the slow work in getting licenses to our pullers. New flyovers for the expressway loomed over the area juxtaposing green fields with the stench of animals and squatter housing along the alleyway.
The meeting was moving along when there was a burst of discussion, almost seeming like arguing back and forth in Hindi, after Dharmendra had asked a question. He told me quickly that the drivers were debating wages: what they made versus a living wage. The debate raged another 5 minutes, until Dharmendra turned his head to me and said that they had agreed that 10000 rupees per month would be an excellent target goal for a living wage. At 43 rupees to the dollar, that’s a little more than $235 USD per month of work or something close to $8 USD per day. Hardly a princely sum, but it goes without saying it’s a long way from where the men stood now. Currently the men average about 150 rupees a day (about $3 USD per day) for a total of 4500 rupees per month.
Part of the reason for the back-and-forth had been the comparisons between the drivers on the daily sum that each had to pay the owner of the bicycle rickshaw. For most that was around 200 rupees. These were sharecroppers of the streets, taxi drivers on rubber and spoke.
The other part of the conversation that was most animated focused on the frequency of the police beatings and daily cane swipes the drivers were enduring as the countdown to the Commonwealth Games moved forward in earnest. Lacking a license was part of the problem, though most of their fares were concentrated in the short runs in the community to school or work or to carry goods or to get from the Metro somewhere else. The rest was that they could not always avoid crossing the major streets and intersections, and this was hell to pay. Cops were trying to move the traffic and saw the rickshaws as an impediment, and a caning was somehow the cure.
The licenses are the hardest to understand because they are now caught in the Indian bureaucratic slowdown. The court victory that lifted the ceiling on the number of licenses was secure, but now there were commissions and studies and anything the municipal corporation could devise to keep from actually issuing licenses to the drivers. It matters because for every day without a license the owners, and therefore the drivers, are paying daily bribes to the police from what they reported. Often about another 40 rupees per day.
There was no problem after an hour for these 25 new drivers to all agree to be at the meeting the following week to take the next steps in joining the organization and then making plans for organizing everyone in this area. The sun was a red outline in the haze of smoke, dust, and dusk as I moved through the traffic to the southern part of the city where I was staying.