When Shivpujan Pandey got a call from another taxi driver, he purchased an urgent tatkal train ticket and boarded a train on July 4 from Mirzapur station in Uttar Pradesh.
He reached Mumbai the next day. But despite the frantic dash back, 63-year-old-Shivpujan could not save his taxi.
It had been auctioned off – by the Mumbai International Airport Limited – one of 42 cabs that had been left unattended at the city’s airport for several months due to the pandemic-lockdown.
And thus Shivpujan lost his livelihood – he had been driving a taxi since 1987, and in 2009 had bought his own black-yellow Maruti Omni by taking a loan.
“What have they got by doing this?” he asks, angrily, standing on a footpath near the Sahar airport one afternoon. “I have spent my whole life doing this work and they are taking away the little we have. This was the worst they could do to us at this time.”
This worst of penalties is what Sanjay Mali too recently faced. His Wagon-R ‘cool cab’ had remained stationary since March 2020 at a large parking area in Annawadi in north Mumbai’s Marol locality, not far from the Sahar international airport.
On the night of June 29, 2021, his cab was moved away from the parking lot. A friend informed him the next day. “I didn’t understand what had happened,” says 42-year-old Sanjay.
He and other taxi drivers estimate that around 1,000 cabs would be parked here till the lockdown began in March 2020. “We used to move our taxis out during work hours and park them back when our work was done,” says Sanjay, who had been parking his cab there for years. The parking spots, the drivers say, were routed through their unions – the airport authority did not take a fee from them but included a Rs. 70 charge in the fare paid by passengers from the airport.
In early March 2020, Sanjay had gone to his village, Aurangabad in Aurai taluka of UP’s Bhadohi district, with his younger brother, an electrician, to prepare for their sister’s wedding. Soon after, the lockdown began and they could not return to Mumbai.
His taxi meanwhile remained in the Annawadi parking lot. He assumed it was safe to keep it there. “I had never thought of anything like this,” he says. “It was lockdown time – my mind was on other matters at that time.”
The taxi had been pledged as security for a Rs. 1 lakh loan that Sanjay took in January 2020 for the wedding. To survive the lockdown, the family relied on savings, on their paddy and wheat crops on a small plot of farmland, and took other smaller loans.
Sanjay’s sister’s wedding got delayed till December 2020. He remained in the village, and his planned return of March 2021 was postponed again because of the second Covid wave. It was the end of May this year by the time Sanjay and his family came back to Mumbai.
When he went to get his cab on June 4, the Annawadi parking gate was shut. The guards there asked him to get permission from the airport authorities to open the gate. The next day, June 5, Sanjay submitted a letter at an office in the airport terminal, explaining his absence and asking to be able to take out his cab. He didn’t even make a photocopy – never imagining he would lose his taxi.
He went back 3-4 times – to the airport office, to the parking lot. To do this, he couldn't take a local train (with lockdown curbs) and had to travel by bus – which, with curtailed services, can take very long. Each time he was asked to come back later. And then, he says, without any warning, his taxi was auctioned off.
Sanjay and another cab driver went to the Sahar police station on June 30 to complain. “They said it’s been done legally, you should have removed your vehicle when the notice was sent,” says Sanjay. “But I never received any notice. I checked with my neighbours [in Mumbai] too. If I knew, would I not have taken out my taxi?” Surely, he adds, the lockdown circumstances could have been considered before the airport authorities took this extreme step?
“My father bought this vehicle from his earnings. He paid EMIs for years,” recalls Sanjay, who worked as a mechanic till he took over plying the taxi in 2014 because of his father’s advancing age.
While Sanjay and Shivpujan didn’t even see their taxis before they were auctioned, Krishnakant Pandey, who helped Shivpujan figure out train schedules to rush back from UP, witnessed his taxi being taken away. He had bought the Indigo ‘cool cab ’in 2008 for Rs. 4 lakhs, and paid EMIs for 54 months to clear the loan.
“I was right there at night and saw my cab and others being taken away one by one. I just kept standing and looking, I couldn’t do anything,” says 52-year-old Krishnakant, referring to the night of June 29. We are talking outside the parking lot in Annawadi, where a huge board on the gate proclaims: ‘This land has been leased by Airports Authority of India to Mumbai International Airport Limited. Trespassers will be prosecuted’.
When Krishnakant went to the Sahar police station to complain that his cab had been taken away, he says no one listened to him. After returning from Lauh, his village in UP’s Jaunpur district in March 2021, he had to get his cab’s engine repaired before he could take it out from the parking lot. “By remaining idle, it had stopped working,” he says. “But I had no money to repair the engine. I had to save for that. And there had been no passengers for a year.”From March to October 2020, Krishnakant had remained in Mumbai. He tried working from July-August last year, but the airport area remained heavily restricted. In November he went to Lauh and returned to Mumbai in March this year. Soon after, the next lockdown began and he couldn’t work. His taxi remained in the Annawadi parking lot.
The Mumbai International Airport Limited (MIAL) says the auction was unavoidable. “This action was taken from a security point of view as the airport is a sensitive place. One cannot keep their taxis for more than a year unattended,” says Dr. Randhir Lamba, assistant vice president, corporate relations, MIAL. “At the end of the day it’s government land taken on lease by the airport, and we have the responsibility of security too.”
Lamba says that a notice was sent three times to 216 drivers whose taxis had remained parked for a long time. Two of these were sent at their registered Mumbai addresses – one in December 2020, the other in February 2021. “We approached the RTO [Regional Transport Office] to find out who the taxis belonged to and their addresses. A public notice was also put out in newspapers,” he says.
Dr. Lamba asserts that the RTO, police and taxi unions were all kept informed. “We reached out to everyone and followed all mandates and procedures.”
What about the letter sent by Sanjay? “We made sure to guide all drivers who even came last minute to us, and returned their taxis,” Lamba replies. “Maybe this driver reached out to the wrong person. We never got his letter.”
'Everything in life was slowly improving. In 2018 we could buy our own small flat in Nallasopara because of Vishnu’s job. I was proud of him. But I have lost my son and then this' – the auction of the taxi
In March 2020, when the lockdown began, Shivpujan Pandey had somehow managed to return to Bhavanipur Uparwar, his village in Aurai taluka of UP’s Sant Ravidas Nagar (Bhadohi) district. With him were his wife Pushpa, a homemaker, and their younger son Vishal. Their elder son, Vishnu, 32, stayed back in the family’s home in Nallasopara in north Mumbai with his wife and four-year-old daughter. He worked in a pharma company but lost his job due to the pandemic.
By the end of July 2020, after a sudden bout of shaking and fainting, he was diagnosed with brain haemorrhage. “Doctors say he may have been under a lot of stress. I was in the village, I didn’t know what was going on. On calls he always sounded fine. We immediately came to Mumbai,” says Shivpujan. For the Rs. 3-4 lakh hospital expenses that followed, Shivpujan borrowed from a local lender and pledged three of his five bigha farmland as collateral.
On August 1 last year, Vishnu passed away.
“He would always tell me to go back to our village and retire, he said he would take care of everything. I was waiting for Vishal to also get a job and then I could rest,” says Shivpujan. Vishal, 25, has an MCom degree and has been looking for government jobs. “But after this we didn’t feel like coming back to Mumbai. It is the worst to see your own son die before you. My wife is still in shock,” says Shivpujan.
The family went back to their village for the last rites. And in July 2021, Shivpujan returned to Mumbai when Krishnakant told him about the auction of his taxi.
“Everything in life was slowly improving,” he says. “In 2018 we could buy our own small flat in Nallasopara because of Vishnu’s job. I was proud of him. But I have lost my son and then this” – the auction of the taxi.
Before the lockdown Shivpujan could earn Rs. 10,000-12,000 a month working from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., picking up passengers arriving on international flights. Then he would park the cab and take a train back home. He has not worked in Mumbai since the lockdown, and last month – after rushing to the city upon hearing of the auction – went back to his village.
Sanjay Mali earned around Rs. 600-800 a day before the lockdown. After losing his cab in the auction, in the second week of July 2021 he rented a taxi for Rs. 1,800 a week. He is anxious about his loans – only half of the Rs. 1 lakh taken for his sister’s wedding has been repaid, plus there are his kids’ school fees. “My savings, all my money is finished. I had to find work,” he says.
When I visited his home in a slum colony in north Mumbai’s Poisar locality, he had just returned around 2 p.m. after three days of plying the rented taxi – and earning just Rs. 850. By evening he would be back at work again.
“Since he has started working again, I have not seen him at peace,” said Sadhana Mali, his worried wife, sitting beside him. “He has a sugar problem [diabetes] and a few years ago had a heart surgery. To not spend on his medicines he either skips taking them or just has medicine one time a day. He is in a bad state due to the tension of losing the cab.”
Their daughter Tamanna is in Class 9 and son Akash in Class 6; they continued online studies from the village. But the private school they attend in Poisar has been asking for the fees for last year and the current academic year (after offering some concession). The Mali family has only been able to pay Tamanna’s fees for last year. “We had to make Akash leave school [this academic year], we couldn’t pay his 6th standard fees. He is insisting that he doesn’t want to miss a year. We too do not want that,” says Sanjay.
The family has only been able to pay Tamanna’s fees for last year. 'We had to make Akash leave school, we couldn’t pay his 6th standard fees. He is insisting that he doesn’t want to miss a year'
Krishnakant, who lives in a slum colony Marol in north Mumbai (most of his family is back in their village) has only been able to pay bits of his room rent of Rs. 4,000 for months. In May 2021 he started ferrying his deceased younger brother’s taxi, an old kaali-peeli that used to be given out on rent. “I try earning up to Rs 200-300 a day,” he says.
And he has decided to not let the loss of his taxi go unchallenged.
A taxi drivers’ union, the Bhartiya Taxi Chalak Sangh, has helped him find a lawyer. Rakesh Mishra, the union’s vice president, says that they understand that the auction was undertaken for security purposes, but its timing was wrong:
“We too didn’t know about the notice until some months ago [till around March 2021]. Our offices were shut. When it came to our attention, we asked them [the airport authorities] to give us some other plot to park. In the lockdown, where would they have parked? There was no response. I tried reaching the drivers. The notices were sent only at their Mumbai addresses. How would these reach drivers back in their villages? Those in Mumbai moved their taxis out of the parking lot.”
“If they want to go for a legal case, they have all the rights,” says Dr. Lamba of the MIAL. The airport lot where the auctioned taxis were parked is not being used currently, he adds. “Using that huge space for taxis doesn’t make sense. The demand for [black-yellow] taxis has gone down. Passengers prefer Ola and Uber. And there is a smaller parking lot for taxis near the airport [that is still functional].”
Krishnakant has been trying to contact all 42 drivers whose cabs were auctioned. (Sanjay Mali is helping him with this task). “Some are in their villages and still unaware of this. I don’t know all of them and have been trying to find them. I don’t want to be the one telling about this, but then who will? Some don’t even have money to buy train tickets back to Mumbai.”
He has collected the signatures of a few taxi drivers on a complaint letter prepared by a lawyer. The letter, dated July 19, has been given to the Sahar police station. “ Ab kya kare ?” he says. “I can read, so I took on this [legal] work. I am 12th pass. Chalo, now my education is of some use.” And at night Krishnakant drives the old taxi. “I have no other option. I don’t know of justice but they have hit us in the belly. It was not just my taxi but my livelihood that they took away,” he saysHe and the other drivers are still waiting for some redress, some action. "I don't know what to do now,” he says. “I am running around for two months. Should I leave the case? Will anything happen? I don’t want to keep quiet, but I am losing hope.”