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Hugely popular, and a win-win deal for all

N. Ramakrishnan

A call taxi driver in Chennai communicates with the control room using the on-board wireless system in his car.

CHENNAI, March 15

THEY are just a call away. And, for those residents of Chennai used to haggling with autorickshaw drivers, it is a welcome relief. The call taxis in the city are slowly but surely becoming popular, what with their electronic meters, easy availability to any destination in the city and its suburbs, added with the comfort of travelling in a car.

There are at least 15 call taxi operators in Chennai, some with just a few vehicles at their disposal, and some others such as Fast Track and Chennai Call Taxi with over a 100 vehicles each. Some of the smaller call taxi operators are even "affiliating" themselves with the bigger ones.

But, strangely enough, the nomenclature of "call taxi" does not have any official recognition, as the Motor Vehicles Act has not provided for this. The call taxi operators, under the banner of the Call Taxi Operators' Association, are trying to get this and other issues sorted out with the Government.

The main problem they face is not being able to park their vehicles inside either the Central railway station compound or at the airport due to resistance from autorickshaw drivers and the other taxi drivers.

In the case of the Central Railway station, the call taxi operators park their vehicles outside and passengers arriving at the station have to lug their bags and walk a good distance to get a call taxi.

As far as the airport is concerned, some call taxis are parked outside, along the busy GST Road. Those who want to hire the call taxis have to either walk out on to the National Highway or call the call taxi numbers - if they happen to remember them - after which a vehicle will be sent inside the airport.

That apart, the call taxi operators see the business growing and have charted plans to increase their fleet strength and provide additional facilities in the form of special packages or summer offers.

The advantage with the call taxis, as the operators point out, is that they are available round-the-clock and are willing to ferry passengers for short distances too, something which the ubiquitous autorickshaws refuse to do or demand extra for plying short distances.

The call taxis are fitted with electronic meters that show not only the exact fare that a passenger has to pay but also the distance from the point of pick-up to the destination. The minimum fare is Rs 30, which is valid for the first three km, and Rs 8 per km thereafter. For travel between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m., it will be an extra 25 per cent.

According to Mr C. Ambigapathy, Managing Director, Fast Track (P) Ltd, the company has 100 Maruti Omni vehicles and on any given day, 80 of them are on the road. The company spends about Rs 300 a day on fuel alone for each vehicle. The company comprises seven directors, each one of whom has invested in the capital. The vehicles have been bought with loan from a bank.

Mr Earnest Paul, Managing Director, Chennai Call Taxi, and President, Call Taxi Operators' Association, says his company has 108 Ambassadors and plans to double the fleet strength shortly. It will go in for a mix of Ambassadors and Maruti Omnis as part of the expansion programme.

Five tourist taxi operators, each one of whom has invested Rs 20 lakh as capital, have formed Chennai Call Taxi, according to him. The company has borrowed Rs 4 crore from banks and financial institutions to purchase the cars.

Talking to a cross-section of drivers in the call taxi companies reveals that they too are a happy lot. Most of them were driving for tourist car operators and hence had to keep irregular hours. The drivers are paid a monthly salary of Rs 2,000 apart from which they get 10 per cent of the day's earnings and an extra incentive if they are available 24 hours or report for work on all days in a month, and if they are lucky a generous tip from customers. Some drivers say they earn around Rs 5,000 a month, substantially more than what they were earning as tourist taxi drivers.

Packaged joyrides

Chennai Call Taxi, which has a fleet of 108 Ambassadors, plans to introduce a vacation package for those engaging its taxis. According to Mr Earnest Paul, Managing Director, this includes even providing a guide at no extra cost to show them around the city. Besides, free mineral water would be given to the tourist.

Fast Track (P) Ltd, which operates Maruti Omnis, apart from the regular services, offers 10-hour and five-hour packages, according to Mr C. Ambigapathy, its Managing Director. The 10-hour package, which is valid for 100 km, costs Rs 875 and the five-hour package, for 50 km, Rs 55. For each additional km, the company will charge Rs 8, while the waiting charges will be Rs 25 per hour.

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