Keeping ahead of the pack in a rickshaw revolution

Starting this month, the Delhi government's transport department will issue 45,000 new licenses for auto rickshaws — time for the current drivers to make their three-wheeler stand out in style.

Samvir Singh Thakur, 26, calls his rickshaw "The UP Express", standing for his hoem state Uttar Pradesh. Inside, his it is decorated with images of Bollywood stars Katrina Kaif and Salman Khan. Simon De Trey-White for The National
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NEW DELHI // As soon as Somvir Singh Thakur parks his auto rickshaw at the repair shop, he is swarmed by mechanics and other drivers. They all want to pose in his auto. Some take photos with their mobile phones, while others want to simply sit in the driver's seat.

The stereo system blares Bollywood music. The upholstery inside is pink, with pink leather seats in the back. The backrest is a scene of motor cars racing, against a pink background.

"Many have no passion," said Mr Thakur, 26. "They drive dry, dreary looking things around. Mine is better, prouder on the streets."

Mr Thakur named his rickshaw the UP Express, after the state of Uttar Pradesh, where Mr Thakur's family is from. He calls it "a thing of beauty" for which he paid 10,000 rupees. He worked seven days a week, both day and night shifts for three months to save up for the redecoration. He says he earns between 200 and 400 rupees a day driving the rickshaw.

"I spend more time with her [the auto] than anyone else. Why should she be shabby?"

Mr Thakur and other rickshaw drivers, as well as the mechanics who keep them running and do the detailing, are preparing for a significantly altered business environment.

Starting this month, the Delhi government's transport department will issue 45,000 new licenses for auto rickshaws. The Supreme Court last November lifted a ban on new licenses that had been in place since 1997 in a bid to stop pollution.

The ban was imposed after a government report found that the auto rickshaws, or three-wheelers, caused 80 per cent of the vehicular pollution in the city.

There are 55,000 auto rickshaws on the streets of Delhi today. All of them now run on compressed natural gas, which causes less pollution than traditional fuel.

Mr Thukur has decorated the outside of his rickshaw with posters of Bollywood stars. Katrina Kaif with her hands folded in namaste adorns one side, Salman Khan, in a vest and sunglasses, looking menacing, the other.

"This is nothing," said Mohammad Arif Khan, an upholstery maker, dismissing the Bollywood posters in the autos. "There are some drivers who take pictures of themselves and have them blown up and put in place of the Bollywood posters."

Other drivers use posters of beefy champions from the American-owned World Wrestling Entertainment franchise.

Following Mr Thakur around, is his brother-in-law, Sunil Kumar Thakur, 22, who wants his auto decorated in a similar fashion. In fact, he wants it all down to the exact detail and finishing.

"Same, same everything same," said Sunil. "When she is on road, we will see how she rides, how she looks, whether she stands out or not, before giving her a name."

At the autokmarket, Mohammad Feroz Alam, 25, was putting the final touches on his auto, with black velvet seats, and a glow-in-the-dark landscape painting as a back-seat cover.

"We want the new drivers to see how it is done properly," said Mr Alam. "The new autos will be here soon. We must be prepared for the competition and set an example."

The auto market is a cluster of about 30 shops and nearly a hundred mechanics on a grease-covered street. The mechanics work on the body of the vehicles, creating auto rickshaw art.

Mr Khan said the work is really divided into three parts: Repairing dents and painting. Seats and hoods. Lights and decoration.

They are upbeat about business prospects with all the new licenses being issued.

"We look forward to the young ones, those are the drivers who like to lovingly decorate their autos before they get married and are burdened with household expenses," said Mr Khan, 36.

Mr Khan is a fixture in the area, having worked there since 1996, a year before the government froze new licenses. Since then, many of his apprentices have gone on to open and close and now open again, shops next to his - including one, Mohammad Shahid, who returned six months ago when the government first announced that the cap on the number of auto rickshaws would be lifted.

"When the news first broke, there was uncertainty about whether this was really going to happen," said Mr Shahid, 30. "But we all took a gamble ordering more supplies and waiting. Now, it looks like our investments will pay off."

Mr Khan says he spends an average of 10,000 rupees a month for posters and boards to put them on, and fabric.

He apprenticed under his uncle when he was 16. For most apprentice mechanics, including Mr Shahid, learning the trade can take up to five years to master, because many cannot read manuals and everything must be learnt by doing.

At the age of eight, Mohammad Rafiq came to work at the auto market for five rupees a week, helping support a family that had just migrated to the city from Uttar Pradesh.

Mr Rafiq, now 36, cannot read or write but he owns three successful shops under one banner called "Pappu Denting Painting Decoration Hood Seat Shop" that specialise in fixing dents and painting over damage. Pappu is Mr Rafiq's nickname.

In the past 15 years when no new licenses were issued, Mr Rafiq expanded his business beyond simple dent repairing. He constructs specially built auto rickshaws for restaurants that use them as booths, complete with tables and chairs. Some of his specially decorated autos are used as wedding cars, while others are used by hotels to ferry tourists around.

With the expected increase in the number of drivers, Mr Rafiq says he will catch up on the new Bollywood films to keep the decoration aspect of his business trendy.

"Whichever film is a big hit, the auto drivers want posters of those actors and actresses," said Mr Rafiq. "We have to stay on top of changing trends."


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