22/11/2015 9:23 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Conversations With Cabbies: My Favourite Source Of Social Policy Insights

Kolkata, West Bengal, India, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia
Antony Giblin via Getty Images
Kolkata, West Bengal, India, Indian Sub-Continent, Asia

Cabbies and auto-rickshaw drivers, from Mumbai to Singapore, are the most politically aware and erudite socio-political commentators around as they truly have their ears to the heartbeat of the communities they drive in; I think 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. He 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 taxiwallah lingo) so that he does not have to seek out the retail costumer.

The well-informed cabbie with his finger firmly on the pulse on the ground is usually the person who knows exactly what's doing the rounds on the grapevine regarding everything from illicit activities to election trends to everyday activities in an area. I wonder sometimes, why don't the world's transport and urban planners elicit feedback from these smart men regarding traffic density and other factors while designing, evaluating and planning urban infrastructure?

About two years ago, I wrote about two inspiring conversations I had 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 a taxi himself.

Entrepreneurial cabbies can earn a pretty decent living, as one taxi uncle in Singapore explained, if they manage to leverage the various peak hour, midnight and city area surcharges; to do this, though, they need to be on the road for 12 to 14 hours a day. Older cabbies can't earn that much because of their physical limitations. In Singapore, driving a cab is often a post-retirement job (or a stop-gap when you are out of work and need to pay the bills) and it takes time for the older driver to learn the ropes.

I recently met a 62-year-old taxi uncle (as they are called in Singapore) who had retired from his business a few months back. As we rode to Clementi from the central part of the island city, he shared his views on Singapore's resilience along with his take on the healthcare system:

"Singapore money very strong; hospitals also run like company. All Indonesian Chinese go to Mount Elizabeth Hospital. Got lot of money. Mount Elizabeth Hospital, MEH, is also called the 'Most Expensive Hospital'. Singapore General Hospital is Super Good Hospital and Tan Tock Seng Hospital is 'Ticket to Heaven' Hospital."

The cost of healthcare and living is an undercurrent in many of the conversations here. A lot of educated folks drive cabs in both cities, which gives an insight into the kind of elitism which excludes people from white collar work. A similar emotion is articulated even in Mumbai. Human experiences are universal when it comes to survival and aspirations. People from the same socio-economic strata often migrate overseas to do blue collar work in the Middle East and Southeast 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 11 September 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 cabs too. Once a taxi driver, a Punjabi aunty, was playing the latest Bollywood tracks, and I felt emotionally transported to 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 on indeed.

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