Get 3 wheels on call

Despite a few hiccups on their first day of service, comes good on most of its promises to make your auto commuting experience a whole lot easier

We were one of many Mumbaikars caught in the freak, heavy downpour that lashed the city on the evening of October 12. Without an umbrella and at the mercy of rickshawallas at Khar station, who refused to ply to Linking Road (which they consider a 'short fare'), we had to resort to taking shelter under the canopy of a nearby showroom, along with other rain-drenched, harried customers for a good 30 minutes.

The service dropped writer Sowmya Rajaram to her destination, Bandra
station in
15 minutes, where she paid by the metre, plus an additional
convenience charge of Rs 20, which goes towards the driver.

Pic/ Sayed Sameer Abedi

It's a scenario many frustrated suburban residents are familiar with, and it's therefore opportune that Rickshawale (.com), a rickshaw-hire service and the brainchild of Chembur-based Chartered Accountant Hemant Jain launched the very next day, prompting us to hop in for a test ride. 

The service, backed by a team of 300 drivers and a four-member group at a 24X7 call centre purports to "help the rickshawallas, because no one thinks about them and how little they earn," says Jain. Noble thought, but what we were keen to check was if we'd have to endure a long wait and rude refusals to commute a short distance -- something even the city's fleet taxi services have mastered.

Thankfully, that didn't happen. Although our first call to the helpline number went unanswered, on the second try, a man who took down our request for an auto from Khar, SV Road to Bandra station, promised to get a driver to call us within 15 minutes. Surprisingly, we weren't given a booking number or a confirmation SMS, although the website says we were supposed to receive one.

What we got was a call from a driver in five minutes, who introduced himself over the din of surrounding traffic, asked when we needed him to arrive, and said he'd be over in 15 minutes, since he was "having lunch". Exactly 15 minutes later, he called to say he was at the pick-up location. Score.

As the website explains, the service works via a GSM tracking device provided to all drivers, which intimates the call centre of their location and whether they are ferrying a passenger. When the auto rickshaw driver reads the SMS sent by the customer care centre regarding the customer's requirement, he presses a button on the tracking device. Instantly, a confirmation is sent to the customer with details of the driver.

"The technology is the same as the one used in Meru Cabs. But that costs Rs 75,000; too costly to fit into a Rs 1 lakh-something auto. I worked on the technology for a year-and-a-half, and developed something that costs Rs 2,500," explains 47 year-old Jain.

So far, 300 drivers, who were "approached individually, because (Jain) wanted to stay away from unions," have become part of the service that will extend to Navi Mumbai and Thane post November. Seven hundred more are keen to join, claims Jain. It certainly seems like a hit among drivers, but Jain is eager to conduct a trial run for a month before taking on more members.

Once in the rickshaw, emblazoned with the website's sticker, we sneaked a peek at the GSM device, which was inoperative, explaining why we never got any SMS. "It's only our first day, and you are my second costumer," said the driver, apologetically. For being cheerful, arriving on time and agreeing to take us to our destination without any fuss, we'll give them that.

"It's not a business venture. I will only break even when I have 2,000 members," Jain is at pains to explain. Is that enough to charge the drivers a non-refundable deposit of Rs 151 and a hefty monthly charge of Rs 999 as membership fee, we wonder.

Once at our destination, we checked the metre and paid the chatty driver the fare plus a convenience charge of Rs 20, which "goes to the driver, and remains the same for all distances and number of people. However, it is Rs 10 for senior citizens, pregnant women and disabled people, who have all appreciated the service," adds Jain, even as the driver proceeds to ferry his next passenger. The service does not restrict rickshawallas from taking on passengers independently. 

Finally, we proceeded to casually leave behind a notepad in the auto to see if the website's promise of returning valuables that have been left behind holds good. Though it never came to that, the driver's gesture of looking back to check the vehicle and returning it to us before he zoomed off left us with a sweet taste in our mouth.

Log on to: to make an online booking or
Call: 25747474. Rickshaws will be sent over depending on availability. Time taken could go up to 20 minutes.

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