For call centre employee Shreelata Gopal, 32, the daily commute from her Sion residence to her Ghatkopar workplace is never an easy ride. “It takes me at least 10 minutes to find a taxi driver willing to go the distance. And the cab invariably turns out to be old and rickety or plain uncomfortable,” she says. Businessman Shyam Mallick, 56, couldn’t agree more. “I’ve lived in Mumbai for over 20 years and there has been no improvement in the state of our cabs; we still rely on Fiats.”  

With some of the cabs more than 26 years old, it’s common to hear commuters complain of rusty handles, uncomfortable seats and bumpy rides. Although the black and yellow cab has been an integral and unchanging part of Mumbai’s landscape for over three decades, many commuters feel that it is high time the kaali-peelis with their mechanical meters and extra charge for dickey ka maal, are laid to rest.   The economy of any progressive city depends on the ability of its transport service to provide cheap, safe and fast travel. “Mumbai is the commercial capital of India and it is shameful to see the state of taxis. The Premier Padmini stopped production in 1998 but we are still using an outdated car model. If taxis in Bangalore have been upgraded to Maruti Omnis, what’s stopping Mumbai?” says Nitin Dossa, executive chairman, West Indian Automobile Association.  

However, not everyone is in sync with Dossa’s suggestion. Most taxi drivers feel that replacing the 53,000-odd Fiats with Tata Indicas and Maruti Esteems is no mean task. “The Fiat is low on maintenance and high on mileage. Why should I invest in a better model when my car works fine?” says taxi driver Vijay Kumar Jaiswal, of his 18-year-old model. He adds, “I don’t have money to buy a new car, but it would be nice if the government could exchange my car for a new one.” 

Trilok Singh, Labh Singh and Hartek Singh all three perfom operations since 1955 but they are not doctors.

“The Fiats can’t be discarded as all other alternatives are too expensive. After investing huge sums on CNG kits, most drivers are reluctant to shell out more money on new models,” says Sudhir Badami, a civil engineer from IIT Bombay who has studied transport infrastructure in the city.   

There have been allegations that union leaders do not want private companies to enter the market as they own many taxis themselves. AL Quadros, general secretary, Mumbai’s Taximen’s Union argues, “We are introducing 500 Maruti Esteem black and yellow cabs by June. The RTO delayed the process as they want us to join private companies.”  

But it’s not just the state of cabs that arouses the ire of city folk. The list of grievances is endless, ranging from ignorant and rude taxi drivers to those who refuse to ply short distances. “Taxi drivers are notorious for fleecing money. The first time I came to Mumbai, I was charged Rs300 for travelling from Kurla to Bandra,” says Natasha Dandiwala, 28, a sales executive. The RTO, though, claims it’s keeping a check on errant taxi drivers. “Flying squads conduct meter inspections everyday,” says Satish Mandora, a vehicle inspector with the RTO. According to VR Gujarathi, deputy regional transport officer, action is taken against cabbies if people complain. “Once a passenger registers a complaint at the RTO, we issue a show-cause notice and investigate. We carry out annual taxi check-ups and regular tests to ensure offenders do not escape.” 

Commuters claim it’s not unusual to come across taxi drivers who have little knowledge of the city. “What do you do when you ask a cabbie to take you to Ghatkopar and he gives you a blank look? How can you become a cab driver if you don’t know the city?” asks Gopal. The administration though, claims that taxi drivers are tested on their knowledge of popular spots in the city. “To clear the test, the driver should be able to take the shortest route to the destination,” Gujarathi says. “You can’t expect someone to know every nook and corner of the city but we do make sure that they know all prominent landmarks. A taxi driver has to be a citizen of Maharashtra for atleast 15 years,” he adds.  

But for commuters fed up with the service, there are other alternatives already available. The Gold Cab Company offers commuters air-conditioned taxis with global positioning systems (GPS). “The Gold cab costs Rs15 flag-down. All cars we use are CNG-based, luxury models such as the Esteem and the Indigo Marina,” says Arun Sabnis, promoter, Mumbai Gold Cab. “The project allows taxi drivers with permits to give away their taxis to the company in exchange for new cabs. The drivers get a fixed salary while profits are invested in the company. Sale proceedings from old taxis are invested in the company,” adds Sabnis. However on the flipside, there are only 50 gold cabs, which is an inadequate number to satisfy Mumbai’s ever increasing population. Another taxi service called Meeru was launched by a private company last week with 150, air-conditioned Maruti Esteem cabs. The service costs Rs15 flag-down and is currently only available in
South Mumbai.
“If our politicians want to make Mumbai an international city, they should begin by improving our cabs,” feels Mallick. Mumbai’s dreams of turning Shanghai may well go kaput if the decades-old taxi-system in the city is not changed, and changed soon.  

Studying Mumbai has always been on my top priority lists. I worked at Tata Interactive Systems and travelled by bus with the sole intention of discovering suburban routes. My report on taxis in the city gave me insights I always wanted. I discovered the taxi recyclying maidan at saat rasta ghas lane where more than over 500 taxis were getting face-lifts. The repairmen said, “Fiat kabhi marti nahin, usko hum zinda rakhte hain!”

Here is a link to the chopped report, Sunday, 1st April, 2007: More black than yellow with city’s cabs