Semester at Sea Fall 2006 Voyage banner


Rickshaw Drivers in Chennai


by Tatsuru Kimura

He is a nice person
well, he is a good driver ↑

At the second day of a home stay in Erode, India, the host father said to me that he has loved Japan next to India since his visit to Japan in the late 1980s.  The reason he loves Japan is that no one there tries to take advantage of tourists.  I had to remember repeatedly what he said when I came back to Chennai.

As well as other SAS students, I had to experience arguments with rickshaw drivers in Chennai.  As soon as I exited the gate of the port, several rickshaw drivers in khaki shirts surrounded me.  Some of them surely try to take advantage of tourists by telling lies.  One of them told me that a bank is too far to walk to, although I could see the bank building from where we were. Another driver said that a museum is 20 kilometers away and I would have to pay $20.  I just ignored them because I doubted what they said and caught another rickshaw.  Although the driver did not speak English, I negotiated with him and he took me to the museum for only 70 Rupees.  Although I realized that he swindled 10 Rupees from me when he gave me change, I did not feel like complaining about it because the fare was so cheap.  Speaking English can be a significant advantage for rickshaw drivers in this city, and tourists can be a best customer for drivers who speak English. 

I always had to pay when I got off the rickshaw, and most of time, I had to argue about how much I should pay because drivers try to take as much money as they can.  What is interesting for me is that every rickshaw driver asked me whether I was happy to pay a certain amount of money after they had taken an unreasonable amount from me.   In Cinema and the Urban Poor in South India, which describes her fieldwork on the movie viewing habits of the Indian poor, Sara Dickey writes about the interaction between the rich and the poor in Madurai.  According to Dickey, the rich try to share the method of becoming rich with the poor, and the poor want to know the method, although most of times, it turns out useless.   It might be natural that the rich give the poor something, and receiving something is a right of the poor.  The habit of begging might be also a claim for the right of poor.  Dickey also writes about general life of the urban poor including rickshaw drivers.  According to her, those poor are always worrying about financial insecurity such as a sudden rise of rent.  The rickshaw drivers I met also talked about cost for their children’s education.  One driver I met had three kids and another driver had four kids.  It might be natural to try to earn, or take money from the rich as much as possible when people are suffering in financially difficult situations.  

I know there are also many honest drivers, but I am interested in the “dishonest behavior” of rickshaw drivers, such as I mentioned above.  I wonder whether these dishonest behaviors against tourists would disappear when they become financially secure.  I want to visit Chennai again when the urban poor have reached more viable living standard.

Return to course home  Send me your comments: