The volume of automobiles being dumped on our streets is growing by leaps and bounds. Gujarat is among those states of India that have highest automobile density, with Ahmedabad accounting for sizeable portion of it.
As such, 2012 is marks the centennial year of the first car in Ahmedabad. Barring collector Mr Clement’s car sold to Sheth Ranchhodlal Chhotalal in 1904, the first ever car in the city was a Ford-T model driven by late Ambalal Sarabhai in 1912. Smt Lilaben Mangaldas’s account of this car in her book is quite vivid with description of people’s curiosity, disbelief and fear of this alien creature. They continue to be scared, albeit now with ever-challenging right of way to pedestrians.
Adding to woes of the streets, are the three-wheeled rickshaws. With very poor dependence on city’s public transport system, these rickshaws have become an integral and important part of the Point A to Point B system of Ahmedabad.
In the pre-automotive days, people who needed to go places were pulled manually on a two-wheeled platform. This soon transformed to a tri-wheeled format. Post Independence, the state of Bombay banned this practice of manual transport on humanitarian grounds and this restriction proved to be a positive challenge to one innovator – Vishnukumar Joshi.
An Amdavadi, Joshi pioneered the first internal combustion three-wheeler in 1948. He imported a 1.25 hp motorcycle engine and fitted it onto his cycle rickshaw. Bhikhubhai Gohel with his badge number 3256 drove the first auto-rickshaw on July 17, 1948. The element of curiosity coupled with jealousy propelled it to an instant success. As a convenient and fast moving vehicle for two passengers, the auto-set (as it was known then) became more profitable than the pedal rickshaw fetching Rs9 in the day and a rupee less after dusk. By end of 1948, at least 25 such vehicles were with Ahmedabad Regional Transport Office (RTO) each sold for Rs1,800. This was an Amdavadi enterprise that has remained profitable even today.
But some technical issues began to surface. The power and weight of this engine proved too much for the wheels originally designed for manual force. The tyres wore faster than before and frame and handlebars on these machines needed frequent repair. As there were no gears installed, the ‘trike’ was a bit tricky to manoeuvre in narrow winding streets.
These drawbacks inspired Mr Siddhumal – an auto spare parts owner near Raipur to introduce an auto-rickshaw in 1950, as we know it today. It was ‘discovered’ by him at a showroom in Bombay as an imported machine from Italy. Convinced that this was something that Ahmedabad needed, Siddhumal bought the Italian make for Rs4,000 and introduced it on the road. Better than its predecessor, 150 imported autos were registered with Ahmedabad RTO in the first year of its introduction. These imported autorickshaws had an open body with a canopy hood. It had gears at the feet and lights were weak making driving at night difficult.
In 1957, closed body rickshaws came into being. This version had the gears and clutch at the hand now. Eventually, Bajaj in collaboration with Piaggio of Italy rolled out the first new-age autorickshaw in 1961 from their factory in Pune, costing Rs6,000.
After bargaining, fares were standardised in 1950 by fixing an A to B commute for roughly six annas a mile. In 1963, a fare structure based on actual distance covered was introduced. The rate was 20 paisa per kilometre.
Such has been the journey of this unique street fixture on three wheels. With 80,000 rickshaws and over a lakh drivers using these, the autorickshaw today has become a private-run, parallel public commute system in Ahmedabad. Let us be reminded that this symbol of the city as a vehicle of convenience, cost-effectiveness and courteous service does not transform into menace with undisciplined driving and bullying associations.
By Yatin Pandya