Goa's quintessential mode of public transport, the motorcycle taxi, is slowly being pushed off the road by a combination of factors.
The riders, colloquially called 'motorcycle pilots' or simply, 'pilots', say the easy availability of rented bikes, the growing number of private vehicles and government apathy are a grouping far worse than the worst inclement weather they face while ferrying customers.
A unique beginning
But it wasn't always this bad.
So unique and in demand was this mode of public transport that the government was forced to tweak its system.
Recalling the registration of the Goa motorcycle taxi riders association, its president, Suresh Thakur, says, "The association was established in 1979, but could not be registered till 1981. At that time, and even today, motorcycle pilots did not exist anywhere else in the country. So the government had to actually create a separate category just for the association's registration."
No matter the age, gender or even nationality, Goa's motorcycle taxis are often the preferred mode of transport to get to an office during peak hour, a home in an interior village where buses seldom ply, or a day-long sightseeing opportunity for a tourist travelling alone.
In the hinterlands of Goa, where public transport is almost a misnomer, one finds pilots often ferrying up to three pillion riders with luggage in a single journey. And these men on their yellow-and-black bikes are often the 'God-sent' delivery for invalids to reach hospitals.
"I owe my wife's life to the motorcycle pilot in our village who braved stormy weather and a broken down bridge to get her to hospital two years ago," says Suresh Kopardekar of Maloli village in Sattari taluka.
For 61-year-old Bernadette D'Souza of Margao, her faithful motorcycle pilot, Ramesh, ensures she is able to complete her daily chores.
Peak & fall
Acknowledging these accolades, Thakur and a few pilots TOI spoke to say the number of customers and therefore earnings are on a decline.
"There were a few pilots during the Portuguese rule, but they mostly operated in Panaji. Then in 1981, when the Goa government began issuing permits, the profession saw a peak that lasted till 1999. After that rented bikes entered the market and our market started to dwindle," says Thakur, unable to provide figures for the 1981-1999 period. The association he heads has 1,800 members and he says there may be another 500-odd pilots who are not members.
Of notifications & fares
Today, there are 64 notified motorcycle taxi stands across the state, many of which were notified in 2002-03. There are also 70 non-notified stands and a proposal to notify these is with the government. Thakur alleges that the government has shown no interest so far.
Asked what the standard motorcycle taxi fare is, Thakur says pilots usually charge 16 for the first kilometre and 5 for every subsequent kilometre.
Srikhant Toruskar has been a motorcycle taxi rider since 1987. He says he opted for this since there was no other employment avenue.
Presently using his third motorcycle since starting in the profession, Toruskar says he undertakes 8-10 trips a day, earns 20-30 per trip in Panaji and makes around 200-350 a day.
His work day at the motorcycle taxi stand starts at 7am and he usually leaves for home around 7pm, though he is delayed sometimes. Being self-employed, he chooses his offs, which are only when he is ill or has to take the day off. He works the morning-half of Sundays.
At another stand in the capital city, Prakash Naik (name changed on request), stresses that "the condition of the motorcycle is important as it forms part of the customer service". Currently riding his fourth motorcycle, he says he took up the profession in 1988 as he "lived in an interior area where the bus service was poor".
He says he covers an average of 100 km a day and earns around 300 a day from around 10-12 trips. He doesn't work on Sundays and national holidays. And though he is now "near retirement", the 61-year-old doesn't want to sit idle. "This way I earn some money too," he says with a grin.
From the Gulf to a bike
Another pilot, 60-year-old Jose Pereira (name changed on request) from Corlim, has been working as a pilot for over 20 years. He says he took it up after becoming jobless, being forced to return to Goa during the Gulf War.
Pereira, who estimates he makes 20-25 trips every day, says, "It is a very tiring job. We have to face the heat, wind, rain."
Ask them what challenges they face, and the laments come quick and thick.
Toruskar feels with increasing traffic-Goa is among the states having highest vehicle density in the country-driving through crowded roads and traffic jams has made his job difficult.
"Earlier roads used to be free and we could drive smoothly," he reminisces. While the monsoon sees a drop in customers "as it is difficult to travel on a motorbike with an umbrella", Toruskar bemoans that tourists only benefit rickshaws or use rented bikes.
No parking zone
Hired bikes are a common complaint of almost all motorcycle pilots, as are cries of parking spaces being usurped.
Two pilots at a stand in the heart of Panaji say the most annoying part of their day is when they come back from ferrying customers only to find a non-pilot parked in their space. "Earlier, authorities would take away these vehicles. Now they don't. We have been complaining but nobody listens," claims Naik.
He observes that after the introduction of the KTC shuttle bus service, he receives very few customers for long-distance trips.
Pereira says the government had promised the pilots that sheds would be placed at the stands to help the riders, especially during the rains. Nothing has been done.
The monsoon, he says, is the worst time for riders, as not only are customers fewer, but the roads are also slippery.
Has he met with any accidents? "I have," he says, "But fortunately, I have not had an accident while ferrying a customer so far. The customers' safety is very important and is the first priority, money is secondary," he utters.
"Ten years ago business was good, but now it is down," observes Pereira, attributing this to the hired bikes. He rues, "Earlier, we used to attend to company representatives coming to Goa, but now they prefer hiring these bikes."
But there's a silver lining in his dark cloud, his "loyal customers". "I often receive calls from those who I have ferried in the past," he says with a smile, as another tiring work day starts to end.
While Goa is presently the only Indian state to have these pilots, Thakur says Hyderabad had tried giving permits to graduates in 1985, but the initiative failed.
Asked why motorcycle taxis have managed to carry on in Goa despite the increasing challenges, he says "people trust our service".
From 2000, pilots above 50 began receiving a monthly financial support of 1,000 from the government. Thakur wants the age brought down to 45 "as pilots toil under the sun, are at the mercy of the elements that cause health issues such as eyesight and blood pressure problems".
Subsidies & pleas
The state government also gives pilots a 25% subsidy up to 18,000 to buy a new motorcycle. But Thakur says the association had sought the subsidy to be increased to 40%.
He ends saying pilots want the government to restrict rent-a-bike operators as the bikes are "used to commit crimes such as chain snatching" and to act against private motorcycles operating part-time as pilots. [TOI]