One of the challenges with traveling in India is getting the taxi drivers to use their meters. Like in most major cities of the world, meters are installed in all taxis to fairly calculate the fare, including factors like distance, wait time, time of day, etc. The rates are set by the city and all taxi drivers are required by law to use the meters, in part to avoid unscrupulous drivers from taking advantage of tourists. In some Indian cities our guidebook says that it is virtually impossible to get the taxi driver to use the meter, and so in most places we’ve just negotiated a fare, which is almost certainly higher than the meter would have calculated. However, in Calcutta, our guidebook makes no mention of this issue so we expected that meter use would be de rigueur here. In fact, we’d been told by a local man that the drivers always use their meters, and we had observed this first hand. When local people get into a cab the drivers turn their meters on immediately to start the clock running as quickly as possible. Not so for us.
Like elsewhere in India the drivers flatly refuse to turn on their meters for us. In broken English, they provide every excuse in the book as to why they can’t use the meter – it’s broken, it’s night time, it’s a holiday, etc., none of which are valid. They have other more drastic excuses also, but we had no idea just how far they would go until last night, when we decided to push it.
We were heading out to a place to which we only had a name, but no idea of the distance or what a reasonable fare would be, so we wanted to use the meter. We hopped into the cab first, before telling him where we wanted to go, and then insisted that he use the meter.
We named the place and the driver asked for 100 Rupees (Rp). We asked him to use the meter. He refused. Then he started to provide the usual excuses. We insisted on using the meter. He started to drive ahead, but only because we were blocking traffic. When it became apparent that we weren’t going to pay his exorbitant fare, he pulled over and asked us to get out. We refused. We raised the prospect of having the traffic police from the corner come over to remind him of the rules, but he called our bluff and said go ahead. But we weren’t getting out of the car.
He then pulled into gas station and claimed that he was taking the car to the garage. I said that if his car was broken, that we would leave when he found us another cab — one that would use the meter. While Diane waited in the cab, he stood with Patrick by the side of the road, flagged a few other cabs, and half-heartedly tried to convince them to do what he would not, but of course they wouldn’t go for it. When Patrick returned to the cab, the driver moved it ahead to get fuel, and began to complain to the station attendants about us. He was getting really frustrated. He then started to shake the car back and forth from the outside. Was he hoping to dislodge us by vibration? We thought this was pretty funny but tried not to laugh.
Now at this point, most tourists would have backed down. Diane would usually have called an end to the experiment at this point, but we’d had a drink with dinner and were emboldened to take it further. Eventually the driver got back into the car, but this time with another guy from the gas station. It wasn’t clear if he was just giving the guy a lift or if he was trying to intimidate us. In India disputes are often settled on the street by shouting matches with the public deciding. Perhaps he wanted to have an even number for what was building up to be such an event.
The driver started moving towards the destination (we hoped), but continued to insist on the 100 Rp fare. We told him to turn the meter on, or we would pay a fare of 50 Rp only. He did turn the meter on, but covered it up with a cloth to obscure it, but the fabric was so thin and the red LED letters so bright that we could still read it. We traveled in silence.
It turned out that the trip was less than a kilometer. We could easily have walked. It took under five minutes to get there plus the twenty minutes of debate before we departed. When we arrived at the busy square, the police were controlling the traffic, and stopping was restricted. As soon as we arrived, the driver cleared the meter so the fare was no longer showing. We got out of the cab and paid the correct amount (in Calcutta, that’s double what is on the meter plus 2 Rupees), which was 10 Rp, or about 25 cents. The driver insisted on being paid what he’d originally asked for, which was ten times the correct fare. We refused. Tensions mounted. Soon a police officer came over and told the cab driver to move on. He complained that he hadn’t been paid. We explained that we were paying per the meter and that he was trying to get much more.
The police officer went to get his supervisor from down the block. The cabbie ran over to a random group of men on the street and tried to solicit them to support him. He was trying to win over the gathering crowd, which is usually the right approach to winning a dispute in India.
At this point the cars were backing up and honking. The senior cop arrived. Patrick summed up the situation in a sentence, and the animated cabbie did the same. The clincher was when the cabbie mentioned the name of the place we’d come from (Park Street), which the senior man knew wasn’t far away. At that point, he told us to give the 10 Rupees to the cabbie, and then told him to move on. We walked away with smiles on our faces. Undoubtedly the fact that cabbies are known to extort tourists also worked in our favour.
We were shocked at the lengths to which a Calcutta cab driver will go to extort tourists. It is almost certain that no other visitors would do what we did to pay the correct fare. We thought it important, at least once, to see if this was possible but we never expected it would take what it did. We’d like to think we were striking a blow on behalf of tourists everywhere, but I doubt the cabbie will act any differently with his next tourist. After this experience, on our two subsequent cab rides in Calcutta we also paid the correct amount, but with slightly fewer shenanigans.