30 August 2010

I'm travelling...

I'll be travelling over the next four weeks and won't be able to write new posts - but I've set up my blog so that a new post is automatically posted every week. These will all be photo essays... enjoy!

20 August 2010

Mr Auto Driver

The Indian auto-rickshaw is a familiar sight on Indian city roads. It provides a convenient way to get around which is cheaper than a taxi and quicker than the bus.

But this convenience can also be a hassle. Auto drivers are not very popular because of their tendency to take passengers for a ride (pun intended). Bangalore auto-drivers are relatively tame compared to those in Chennai – where total auto anarchy prevails – but they can be a challenge to deal with. Often they don’t want to use the meter and quote you an inflated fare instead. Or meters are tampered and run faster than they should. Sometimes they try to take a longer route, citing traffic problems or any other excuse they can come up with. Or they just don’t want to go where you want to go. Try to take an auto into the city centre during rush hour and before you’ve finished telling the driver your destination he will speed off leaving you on the road coughing in a cloud of auto exhaust.

Recently, fed up auto-riding citizens decided to no longer take no for an answer. A day-long action dubbed Meter Jam was organized and citizens were incited to boycott autos for a day: Say NO to auto-rickshaws on 12th August. Because they say NO to you whenever they want.

Recently I was in an auto with a chatty driver who spoke English. I asked him what he thought of Meter Jam day and he replied that he thought it was a good idea and that people should not put up with dishonest drivers. He also told me that he found the recent fare increase too high and that more people may now decide to take the bus instead of autos.

I was surprised as much by his opinions as his fluent English. He told me that he’s been driving an auto for a year. He used to have a nut-and-bolt-making business but it didn’t go well. So can auto-drivers make a decent living? I asked him.

He told me his take-home pay at the end of the day is 550 rupees. If he works a 6-day week, he earns over 13,000 rupees (220 EUR / 180 GBP / 292 CAD / 279 USD) a month. This is much more than the average salary of a private driver. He makes more on Saturdays because he waits near pubs and nightclubs at night after they close and when fares increase by 50% after 10pm.

He told me that few auto drivers own their own vehicles. A new auto costs 160,000 rupees and few can afford this. They rent them on a daily basis from their owners (who apparently own whole fleets of autos) for 150 rupees per day and 100 on Sundays. Besides the daily rent he pays about 200 per day for fuel.

And what will happen when the metro opens? Will autos be in less demand? Mr auto-driver is optimistic. He said that autos will provide a shuttle service to metro stations. They can charge 10 Rs each way for each passenger on a share-auto basis, like in other cities. This will mean good business for them.

As for Meter Jam Day, it was not much of a success according to the papers. But the organizers are pledging to make this a monthly event!

06 August 2010

Water for elephants

If you visit a temple in South India, you’ll be met by an elephant at the door. She’ll ask you for a coin which she’ll take from your hand and slyly drop in the lap of her mahout before ‘blessing’ you by tapping you gently on the head.

The elephant is revered in India because it is a representation of the elephant-headed god Ganesh. But temple elephants do not live in the most ideal conditions. They stand for hours in the hot sun, are kept chained in confined spaces and suffer from foot diseases.

But it looks like changes are being implemented with the elephant’s welfare in mind. I came across this article which describes how steps are being taken to treat Parvathi, the temple elephant at the famous Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, more like a god and less like a slave:

The Hindu, MADURAI, August 5, 2010

Parvathi, the 15-year-old female elephant of the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple here, is basking under a new shower system installed exclusively for its use.

Put into operation on Wednesday, the shower will use 5,000 litres of water a day for the elephant, which will be cleaned once in the morning and evening. The shower was installed at a cost of Rs. 20,000. The move follows a meeting of the temple authorities and individuals owning elephants convened on July 2 by the Chief Conservator of Forests at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park at Vandalur in Chennai, said R. Padmanaban, Executive Officer of the temple.

The meeting discussed the upkeep of elephants and the general health practices to be followed. Following the advice received during the meeting, the Meenakshi temple authorities have decided to replace with sand the stone tiles at the Yanai Mahal (the elephant enclosure located inside the temple).

The elephant would be served new health food as instructed during the meeting. “We have also stopped the practice of elephant blessing devotees from July following the advice from State government. This was done to prevent the elephant from contracting any disease,” he said. Parvathi, which was brought from Arunachal Pradesh, weighs over 3,000 kg. Health check-ups are conducted once in 15 days by veterinarians from the Animal Husbandry Department.

A similar initiative was undertaken recently at the Subramaniaswamy Temple at Tirupparankundram near here where a shower system was set up for the temple elephant.