In the eighties when Kolkata was still Calcutta, long rows of yellow ambassador cabs in front of Hotel Oberoi Grand at Esplanade was considered to be an iconic photograph of the City of Joy. Victoria Memorial, Shahid Minar or the Howrah Bridge represented Calcutta yet international and national photographers loved to catch the very essence of Calcutta in this quintessential shot with yellow taxis. Not any more. The yellow taxis, once so emblematic of Calcutta are on their way out. And without them the city’s roadscape will be irrevocably changed
Fitted with a 1.5 litre diesel engine, a body no less than 4.3 metre long and 1.6 metre wide and weighing more than a ton, the ambassador from Hindustan Motors had always been the preferred car for cabs in Calcutta. But they are hardly visible on the streets nowadays. Well, the yellow taxi and their drivers earned enough notoriety, thanks to their refusals and rude behaviour with hapless passengers. Neither the union nor the police were able to tame them into being passenger-friendly.
“Yellow cab drivers have dug their own grave by resorting to frequent strikes,” said Rajendra Prasad, a cab driver in Kolkata for the past 17 years. But there are other factors which have contributed to the downfall of the yellow taxis in the city:
HM stops production of Ambassadors: After 56 years of production, Hindustan Motors has finally stopped manufacturing all models and variants of the Ambassador. So ambassador yellow taxis are truly a thing of the past.
Phasing out 15-year-old taxis: The government has made it mandatory for the yellow taxis which are older than 15 years to be discontinued. So old models are being phased out mandatorily.
New generation metered taxis: There are increasing number of white Tata Indigos and Maruti Swifts in Kolkata which ply with the same meters as the yellow taxis under ‘No refusal’ tags. These have slowly replaced the yellow taxi.
Foreign competition: With multi-national companies like Ola and Uber entering the cab service market, it has become increasingly difficult for the yellow taxis to cope with the competition.
Comfort against fare: Lucrative offers from newer cab companies combined with the luxury that they offer have doomed the fate of yellow taxis.
Door-step cabs: New generation cabs are being perceived as more passenger friendly, thanks to the use of latest technology and GPS. These new cabs are available right at your door step and have sounded the final death knell for the yellow cabs.
“New and swanky cars may come and go but the streets of Kolkata with its potholes and mad traffic can be tamed only by the mighty Ambassador,” said Harinder Singh, the 68-year-old cab driver, who has been driving the yellow-taxi for almost 50 years. Similar sentiments were expressed by the 58-year-old Salauddin Parwez who added: “This very yellow taxi has provided for my family and funded my children’s education, newer cabs can come and go but I’m taking the yellow taxi to my grave”
Younger drivers, new to the city regard the yellow taxi to be their saviour. Anil Karkee who arrived to the city from Siliguri just 5 months ago, said: “I am satisfied with driving the yellow taxi and liking the job as well.” When asked why he hasn’t applied for the newer app-based taxi services, Anil said he has been trying but is on the look out for a car owner with whose car he can register with them.
Amidst all the changes, the conventional and the modern cabs have come together. Kolkata’s conventional yellow cabs can now be booked through an app belonging to online cab-booking service, Ola. According to the company, around 1,000 such cabs have registered with Ola. Registered yellow taxi drivers are now equipped with smartphones which enable them to accept booking requests and reach out to the customer at his doorstep. Customers can pay the fares either through cash or the company’s mobile wallet service. While fares for the yellow cabs would be in accordance with government-fixed meters, Ola charges an additional `10 as convenience fee. “I have been using this mobile-app feature for around 3 months, although there has been an increase in the number of passengers there are a lot of loopholes in the system which needs to be looked into” said Prakash Bose, a taxi driver using the app service. Arko Pal, who uses the app service ‘Kaali-peeli’ – the mobile application from Ola for availing taxi services said: “I feel this is a brilliant move. If capitalized well, this can mutually benefit both the yellow taxi drivers and the company. As drivers of these cabs have an option of logging out of the Ola platform and resume their normal operations, there is the right amount of flexibility required by the drivers of yellow taxi.
However, these arrangements can be termed as last minute life saving measures. Yellow taxis are actually gasping for their last breath now and it is only a matter of time before they disappear from the roads of Kolkata.