Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Taxi gangs and Mafia of Goa? Placing issues in perspective

Since around May this year, there have been a number of reports on the manner in which the tourist-taxi system in Goa works. This attention has been ensured thanks to the reportedly aggressive behavior by the taxi-operators (taxistas), by their request to the government to handle the disputes between the taxi-operator associations in North and South Goa, and the demand by a variety of organizations to ensure that the operation of these taxis is regulated by meters in these taxis.

Given that the taxi system could, and must, operate as a viable supplement to the public transport system in our state, it would be in our best interest to ensure that this segment of the public transport system is well-regulated and accessible to all. Having said this however, it is also necessary to assert that one cannot ensure the fair and honest resolution of a problem by demonizing one party and laying all of the blame at their feet. This is exactly what seems to be happening however, via the various newspaper reports, where it is the taxistas alone who are being faulted as being exploitative, demanding ridiculously exorbitant charges, as well as violently aggressive towards their customers.

The aim of this column is to suggest a more sympathetic viewing of the taxistas, one that moves away from demonizing them, so that we could move toward a just resolution of the problem. As such, the first task would be to question whether the manner in which we view the taxistas is not in fact tinted by class-based prejudices. A recent article in The Goan allows us to place this possibility in context, given that it uses two highly inappropriate words, mafia and gangs, for the informal associations of the taxistas. These words demonstrate the manner in which these groups are not only being demonized but are effectively being criminalized. It is not surprising that these adjectives were being used for groups from South Goa given that there is a long Goan history of depicting the working class Saxticar as unthinking, hot-headed and violent. Every major Goan population has relied on the mass mobilization of Saxticars, but simultaneously has cast them as mobs without political savvy, setting in process this tendency to criminalize the Saxticar. This may also have to do with the kind of class-relations that marked colonial Salcette, given the large landholdings in that taluka, the unequal and oppressive relations between landlords and tenants, the tendency for the dominant class to see the genuine demands of the tenant class as illegitimate, and a situation where there was largely no option for the tenant but to acquiesce or revolt.

The article in The Goan, indicates that there are clashes between the various taxista groups in South Goa, where for example the taxistas in Margão, prevent taxistas from outside the city to operate, but while doing also locates a good reason for this behavior. This tabloid indicates that the State has thus far been remarkably absent in regulating the taxi-system, whether it is among legitimate taxi-operators, or private vehicles operating as taxis. In the absence of a fair and constant regulative presence therefore, it is little wonder that the field of taxistas has turned into the free-for-all that is being reported. Anecdotal observations further indicate that this free-for-all is also the result of the manner in which the State and elected representatives over time have, in the process of creating vote-banks, in fact created the problem by indiscriminately making available more cars for use as cabs, than the market is able to support. Given this situation of excess supply, it is little wonder that the taxistas are keen to ensure that they make as much money from their customers as they can.

Furthermore, while there have been many stories that present the customers as the victims of the predatory taxistas (as no doubt a good number may be), we must also place this plaint in perspective. As Jorge Fernandes, spokesperson for the South Goa Registered Tourist Taxi Association spokesperson is reported to have said “… without a formal meter, it’s the tourists that loot the local taxi operators and not the other way round as propagated by few vested interested people”. Bear in mind that it is not only the middle-class (whether Indian, or Goan) customers who are used to browbeating service providers into the cheapest possible deal, but also the tourists who visit Goa, who are famously known to have perfected skills of bargaining to ensure that services are offered at unsustainable rates.

What also bears comments, is that there is also something odious about the suggestions that are being made, and accepted by the taxista associations, of etiquette classes that the taxistas need toattend. It would be great if the taxistas were able to attend courses that would provide them a greater sense of the world, the nuances of the multiple social orders that they cater to, and the social skills required to do so. However, we shold ensure that such a program does not begin from the assumption that the taxistas in themselves are lacking. Such a course should not slip into one that urges taxi-drivers to wear shoes and socks, and perhaps prompting them to open doors for customers once they reach their destination. Such course content would emphatically NOT be about etiquette. It would be a class-based, Hollywood-fantasy inspired, desire of elitist segments of our society to convert service providers into servants. If the Goan taxista has a sense of self-worth that makes him (since it is invariably a him) feel that the customer should also acclimatize to their sensibilities then we should in fact recognize that it has been this sense of self-worth that has even from colonial times marked off the Goan as different and special in the subcontinent. Where providing a taxi service is a way out of many individuals and families from earlier feudal relationships, we cannot in the process of upgrading the industry, push these groups back into conditions of servitude

Finally, the demand for a meter fails to take into consideration that Goa’s spatial arrangement, being deceptively ‘urbanesque’, is unlike other urban locations that are marked by a high population density needing, and willing to pay for transportation. It is quite possible for a taxi to be hired from the airport (in South Goa), to take the customer to Tivim for example, which not only does not offer a high-density market, but is also many precious petrol-kilometers away from the taxistas eventual destination. Any regulatory system, whether meter or otherwise, will have to take into consideration these logistical issues and the complexities of the market that the taxistas operate in.

The suggestion this column makes, is not that relations between the taxistas and their customers is absent of manipulation and aggression, but that this behavior is in fact being overdramatized because of the inherent class biases that we hold. Further, this column suggests that the behavior that reportedly exists in the taxi service industry is the result of a system, deliberated created by the political elite of the State. This is a clear indication of that oft-used Sanskrit aphorism, Yatha Raja, tatha praja (as the ruler, so with the people). This system of looting the system while there is stuff to loot (what ecological economists have called the tragedy of the commons) is not peculiar to the taxistas, but is a marked feature of the entire system in Goa, from political elites, to mining and other aspects of the tourist industry. In such a case, why blame the taxistas alone, and why start with them, definitely small fry in the larger picture, first?

Clearly then, what is required is not merely the introduction of meters into taxis, but the presence of a genuine regulatory system, one that does not operate merely to punish, but to ensure fair and equal treatment for all involved. Thus we do need a greater presence of the State in this scenario, but it is not merely a punitive police State, but a justice-concerned regulatory State. This latter State, most of us will acknowledge has been more than absent from Goa for a good many years. Furthermore, it is important for us to take off our prejudiced blinkers, stem the criminalized perspective from which we view the taxistas, and recognize that while actively contributing to the mess that the taxi-system in Goa is, they are as much victims of the system, and it would be more appropriate to see their behavior as the result of the position that they have been cast into.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 8 Aug 2012)

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