Goa’s motorcycle pilots bore the brunt of the Covid for close to two years and are now struggling with sky-high fuel prices.
In the run up to the elections in Goa last year, Rahul Gandhi was on his campaign rounds in the state and chose to take a motorcycle taxi to a political meeting. The driver or “pilot” as he is called in the state would have felt much honoured and would have definitely discussed his situation, what with customers afraid to sit pillion given the risk of Covid and fewer folks moving out due to the curfew. Riding pillion made for good optics -- Gandhi made sure he wore a helmet and mask as he rode pillion behind the pilot-- and moreover, there were no price hikes.
However, with the results out, and the BJP returning to power in the state, all that changed. The government soon announced a rise in petrol prices in rapid succession, starting with an increase of 80 paise. The pilot fraternity in the state are again worried. As one pilot Murtaza who has been working for close to a decade says, “Fuel prices were already high and now the latest hikes could affect our business.” In the months before the hike, many would ask for a little more money or simply say“ pay as you wish” hoping for a generous tip. Many pilots have loyal customers and so they do not want to be seen overcharging them.
As a rule, the standard rate for the first kilometre is Rs 20 and thereafter, it’s Rs 10 per km for every additional one. But as one pilot puts it, with fuel prices well above Rs 100 a litre, it is not economical to charge Rs 10 any longer. Another pilot says that neither the RTO or the motorcycle taxi association has upped the official fares to reflect the latest increases.
In Goa’s increasingly chaotic transport in its urban areas, taking a ride with a pilot gives one a sense of speed in a state where the ambience is by and large easy going. One can weave in and out of traffic snarls and be on one’s way.
Most pilots come from very modest backgrounds. For many, working as pilots is the only job they have known, and those in their late 40s or early 50s, say they cannot think of doing any other job. One pilot said he had a job in construction but the pay was erratic and he didn’t like working long hours in the sun. So he took up a pilot’s job and now has some control over his life and “makes decent money”. Another gave up his carpentry as people now buy ready made furniture, and became a pilot.
As part of its employment generation scheme, the government subsidies the cost of the motorcycle “provided one applies for it”, says Fazl who works as a master kneader in a bakery by day and is a pilot in the evenings. The subsidy varies between Rs 15,000 and Rs 20,000.
A variety of brands are used but among the most common are the Splendor and CD Dawn. As one pilot puts it, the mileage that a bike gives matters in our business and the Splendor has delivered on that score. However, many now choose the Honda Shine because as Fazl says, “the parts last longer and it has good speed”.
In a tight-knit community, many pilots have a loyal clientele who patronise them when they have urgent work. There have been no known cases of sexual assault so many women choose to take a pilot for errands nearby. Media reports suggest that the motorcycle taxi association has 4500 members, many of whose numbers can be seen on Facebook. Yet, today there are many “illegal” ones without permits who grab business from the long-standing ones.
As tourists return to the state for the first summer holidays since the pandemic, and schools reopen, the pilots can only hope that better days lie ahead. Obrigado.
The feature was published in Autocar Professional's May 15, 2022 issue.
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