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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Bye bye, Premier Padmini taxi

Bye bye, Premier Padmini taxi

Mumbai's iconic Premier Padmini taxi finally does its last few rounds, with regret as well as relief

Premier Ltd. no longer makes Premier Padminis, but the vehicles survive as taxis in Mumbai. Photo: Chirodeep ChaudhuriPremium
Premier Ltd. no longer makes Premier Padminis, but the vehicles survive as taxis in Mumbai. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

It was business as usual at Sheikh Riyaz Hasan’s Royal Auto Parts garage (tag line “Drive the future") at Kopergaon Estate in the south-central neighbourhood of Byculla in Mumbai.

Muscular men in grease-covered singlets and denims mercilessly hacked away at a Premier Padmini with hammers and drills. Off with the roof, the bonnet, the doors, the bumper, the foam seats and the springs underneath them. Within minutes, the taxi had been stripped down to a chassis and its reusable parts were assigned to various mini-graveyards of older taxis—steering wheels here, gas tanks there.

Hasan deals only with Premier Padmini scrap—a specialization possible in a city where the vehicle is finally on its way out after decades of rattling along roads. The Padmini being pulped belonged to Mehndi Hasan, it was one of 13 taxis he operated (he also has permits for seven Santros).

If no one challenges the resolution issued by the Maharashtra government on 28 May, reducing the age limit of Padminis that can run in the city from 25 years to 20, Hasan’s remaining 12 will also have to be sold for scrap. Objections must be filed by 31 July. Of the approximately 42,000 black-and-yellow cabs in Mumbai, between 10,000 and 11,000 are Padminis, according to the Mumbai Taximen’s Union.

In 2008, the Maharashtra government had already ordered a ban on vehicles older than 25 years, so Mehndi Hasan isn’t quite sure why they’re speeding up the process. “Many people are voluntarily letting go of their vehicles in any case, but why force everybody?" he asks. The last few years have been hellish for taxi drivers, he adds—they have barely recovered the cost of gradually converting their petrol and diesel cars to compressed natural gas, installing new digital meters, competing with fleet taxi services, handling loans for new vehicles to replace the older ones, and paying recently instituted taxes, including a professional tax and a green tax.

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Mumbai taxi drivers don’t usually keep their feelings private. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

Taxis and complaints—the two are synonymous in a city that has a love-hate relationship with the vehicle and the men (and odd woman) crouching behind its wheel. Ever since it was first deployed as a taxi in the early 1970s, the Fiat model known as Premier Padmini has served its drivers and passengers well. It has been immortalized in movies (Gaman,Chaalbaaz and Taxi No. 9211 feature taxi drivers) and in song (in 1994, Magnasound released an album by a singer who recorded under the name Toofani Taxiwala).

But the Padmini declined with the entry of newer models in the 1990s, more strict pollution emission norms, and the feeling, articulated more forcefully in recent years, that the vehicle was unworthy of a globalizing city. Mapped on to a distaste of the Padmini, often described as “smelly" and “rickety", was the long-standing prejudice about the taxi driver as a slovenly and untrustworthy migrant.

The fact that Premier Automobile Ltd (PAL) stopped manufacturing Padminis in 2000 has done surprisingly little to limit its ubiquity. This has more to do with pragmatism than romanticism. Driver after driver attests to the hardiness of the Padmini, its excellent engineering, its compact and passenger-friendly design, and its overall efficiency in getting Mumbaikars from points A to B. Though production of the vehicle has ceased, spare parts continue to be available across the city and elsewhere. An entire Premier Padmini support system exists across Mumbai, with garages and automobile workshops stocking duplicate parts that come from places as far away as Delhi.

If taxis go to places like Byculla and Kurla to die, they come to Do Taaki to be reborn. The south Mumbai neighbourhood is devoted to selling automobile parts, from tyres and horns to radiators and bonnets. Mohammed Iqbal Mansuri buys and sells Padminis to car owners, but taxi drivers show up at his store to buy the parts they need to keep their vehicles running. “The Padmini’s parts are easily available in the market," Mansuri says. “It is cheaper than other cars and is a solid make."

Decorators have also made a tidy income by supplying the glass-and-glitter fittings, dashboard curios and radium stickers that reflect the owner’s personal sense of aesthetics.

The Mumbai taxi is iconic not just because of the Premier Padmini but also what goes on inside it, says Kabi Sherman, a social worker who posted podcasts of interviews with taxi drivers between 2007 and April this year on her blog, “The relationship between a taxi and its driver depends on whether or not he is the owner and how long he has been driving that car," says Sherman, who moved to India from the US in 1993. “If somebody has been driving a car for a long time, it’s his home, his everything."

Sherman used to drive taxis in Los Angeles and New York City, US, in the late 1970s, and her project was an attempt to understand the precarious lives of the mostly migrant drivers. “The migration stories, the changing city, the design—it all fitted in with this idea of Bombay becoming a world-class city so we now have to get rid of these icons," says Sherman. Whether it is Los Angeles or Mumbai, the kind of people who drive taxis are the same, she observes. “It’s a way to make money, an entry point into the economy."

Mumbai Taximen’s Union president Anthony L. Quadros is the face of the organization for passengers and the government. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri
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Mumbai Taximen’s Union president Anthony L. Quadros is the face of the organization for passengers and the government. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

Taxi adornment ranges from the subtle to the gaudy. Some cabs have mirrors and glass mosaic fitted on to the roofs, coloured lights, and an array of gods seated on the dashboard. Others restrict themselves to radium stickers on the rear glass which could feature elaborate scenes of a lonely woman waiting by a highway for her beloved accompanied by the words “Ghar Kab Aaoge" (When will you return?) to succinct pronouncements on matters of the heart such as “Don’t Miss Me", “Love is Sweet Poison" and one of Sherman’s favourites, “Mohabbat Hai Mirch" (Love is spicy).

“Taxi drivers want whatever is new," says Suhas Prasade, a radium sticker supplier at Guru Tegh Bahadur Nagar, one of several neighbourhoods in Mumbai where taxi decorations can be purchased and customized. Prasade sells stickers carrying information about the localities in which the taxis operate, images of gods and religious symbols (Sai Baba is a favourite), and movie titles. “The RTO has become very strict about stickers because the passengers need to be clearly visible from the outside," Prasade says.

Beauty is implied by the very name of the Indian version of the Fiat 1100—it is named after the legendary queen of Chittor. The Fiat model, the result of an agreement between PAL and the Italian company Fiat, was first manufactured in 1964. It was initially called the Fiat 1100 Delight, then the Premier President, and finally, Padmini in 1973. Around this time, it started roaming Mumbai in its black-and-yellow version.

“The Premier Padmini became very popular because it was easy to maintain and reliable—it was great for private car owners but even better for taxi owners," says Maitreya Doshi, chairperson and managing director of PAL. You could overload the vehicle significantly, and people would carry huge amounts of luggage and even carpets—it was a people and goods mover. The negative of this was that there was huge overuse, wear and tear and lower maintenance—sitting in a taxi wasn’t a pleasant experience any more."

Beauty is implied by the very name of the Indian version of the Fiat 1100—it is named after the legendary queen of Chittor.

Does the company plan to mark its association with the taxi in any way? Not yet, says Doshi. “Some people have approached us to make a plaque (for the taxi) and so on, but it is time to move on," he says. “While we filled a void and addressed a need at a particular point in time when there was little availability of different products, today’s scenario is quite different. We are proud to be associated with the city, but I think the city comes first and its citizens need comforts. The need of today’s Mumbai is a multi-tiered structure with different models and applications. The Padmini represented a good opportunity for ordinary people to earn a living in Bombay. It should stand as a metaphor for that."

In the taxi’s heyday, its drivers were proud practitioners of a respectable trade and card-carrying members of a union that represented their interests and got them accommodation and access to banks. The Mumbai Taximen’s Union (MTU), formed on 24 January 1960 and affiliated to the Hind Mazdoor Kisan Panchayat set up by socialist leader George Fernandes, has 16,000 members today. Taxi drivers have reflected migration patterns to Mumbai like few other groups, says union president Anthony L. Quadros.

“In the 1960s, taxi drivers were from Uttar Pradesh and south Karnataka, but then many of the south Indian drivers migrated to the Gulf countries," he says. “Then there were Sikhs, Punjabis and Chilia Muslims from north Gujarat. In the 1980s, many of them joined other businesses—the Punjabis joined trucking, the Chilias moved to the hotel business. The Maharashtrians are mostly from Satara and Raigad, and now many of them are in the tempo trade. The taxi drivers are now mainly from Uttar Pradesh and, more recently, Bihar."

Front-wheel drive shafts at a spare parts store in the Sion neighbourhood. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri
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Front-wheel drive shafts at a spare parts store in the Sion neighbourhood. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

The challenges being faced by the independent Mumbai taxi driver is similar to those in cities like New York City, says Biju Mathew, an organizer of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, the head of the all-America National Taxi Workers Alliance, and the author of Taxi!: Cabs And Capitalism in New York City. Mathew spent a few months in Mumbai in 2009 and 2010 researching the emergence of fleet taxi services and their impact on the business in Mumbai and Hyderabad.

“What happened was that the fleet taxis had been given priority and the kaali-peelis (black-and-yellow cabs) were suffering," he says. “The logic of moving to fleet taxis is an unmitigated disaster for drivers all around—it will increase the number of taxis and cut into the earnings of the drivers. You are driving one workforce that has some semblance of stability into a structure of instability. There is something about the current economic environment wherein it is okay to take a public good, something that supports the small person, and hand it over to a corporation."

The MTU has taken a conciliatory (critics call it resigned) rather than a confrontational stand on the most recent government order. The union flashes into the public eye whenever it organizes agitations for higher fares, but the rest of the time, the office serves as a problem-solving hub for drivers and a lost-and-found centre. Items left behind in cabs, from purses and wallets to phones and documents, are stored in a loft above Quadros’ desk.

Quadros, who joined the union as an employee in 1976, drove a taxi till 1974. He inherited a permit from his father, a taxi driver who was killed by robbers in 1950 while transporting cash between banks in the Fort area. Among the small victories won by the union over the years, Quadros counts the introduction of pre-paid taxi services between several busy spots in the city, air-conditioned taxis, and the inter-city service between Mumbai and Pune and Nashik and, briefly, between Mumbai and Surat.

The union’s most significant triumph was in the late 1970s, when housing was scarce and home loans were hard to come by. With some encouragement from Fernandes, the Life Insurance Corp. advanced a loan to the union in 1968 to construct a taximen’s colony in Kurla which was modelled on similar colonies for professional groups like teachers and writers. The Kurla colony had 540 apartments of various sizes and was conveniently located near the PAL factory (which has since been demolished and now houses a residential complex). “But thereafter, we could not get land to build more colonies," Quadros says.

Items left behind in cabs, from purses and wallets to phones and documents, are stored in a loft above Quadros’ desk.

Kurla is also home to a graveyard for taxis, on CST Road.

The informal economy built around the Padmini will take a huge beating once the taxi disappears, and scrap merchants like Riyaz Hasan will have to find other ways to occupy his muscled men and hammers and drills. “Privately owned Premier cars will become antiques and the ones left behind will be scrapped," he predicts. “Once the taxi is finished in Bombay, the spare parts will also stop coming."

The Premier may die in the city, but it will live on in other unseen ways. Hasan says Padmini components are fitted into vehicles of other makes, such as the chhakdas (shared taxis) in neighbouring Gujarat. “It is a very strong car," he says.

Also Read: Photo Essay | Graveyard shift

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Published: 13 Jul 2013, 12:27 AM IST
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