New Delhi’s space-age tuk tuks

Citizens of New Delhi can expect something new as they gad about by auto-rickshaw – the soothing voice of satnav directing them to their destinations.

From May 1st all New Delhi’s 52,000 tuk tuks will be required to use GPS devices. State authorities hope this will reduce the overcharging and route deviation that plague the city’s on-demand transport system.

But Delhi’s attempt to drag the ubiquitous rickshaws into the 21st century is already causing controversy: drivers have been on strike since the beginning of the week.

GPS penetration in India is low but rising quickly. Most Indians in urban centres rely on auto-rickshaw drivers, taxi drivers and passers-by for directions. Among the young, internet navigation systems such as Google Maps are far more widely-used than satnav.

India, unlike China, is still in the process of developing its own GPS system and will launch the first of four planned satellites on April 15. Meanwhile, it relies on US satellites – so the system lacks precision, meaning users need more sophisticated, more expensive navigators.

In spite of this, usage of GPS technology is spreading rapidly.

CMC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Tata Consultancy, for example, provides GPS for 20,000 Indian Oil trucks operating across the country’s 28 states.

All of New Delhi’s 5,000 public and private buses are equipped with GPS devices. The city’s transport information system runs on GPRS provided by Airtel, one of India’s largest telecoms operators. Maps for the city’s transport system are provided by MapMyIndia.

The current system will be expanded to provide backbone network for auto rickshaw drivers, said I S Rekhi of Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System (DIMTS), a joint venture company of the Delhi state government and the Infrastructure Development Finance Company.

Rekhi told beyondbrics navigation devices on the city’s tuk tuks would be provided by Chennai-basd Applied DSP, part of Sobha developers. The navigator will be compatible with the city’s GPS network for buses and will cost Rs15,000 a year, payable monthly. Rickshaw drivers, most of whom rent their vehicles, are expected to pay this from their own pockets – quite a hit. However, the government insists it hiked fares in June last year to help drivers save up towards the expense of installing GPS devices.

The Delhi government hopes to have navigation devices on all vehicles within a year. They will be installed when tuk tuks go for inspection; those failing to comply will lose their licences.

Officials say the move will improve commuter convenience and security. It may well be exported to other Indian cities including Ahmedabad, Pune, Chandigarh and Chennai, say industry insiders.

But even the most modern GPS system cannot force tuk tuk drivers to go by the meter, which they often don’t. So it looks like commuters will carry the cost of a technology that tells rickshaw drivers what they already know – the cheapest and fastest way to get anywhere in the city.


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