Sunday, May 28, 2023

Yellow taxi: Kolkata losing its iconic carriers


Kolkata and its yellow taxis are very much synonymous, as it is with Rabindranath, rosogolla and football. Despite the rich heritage of the yellow taxis and their entwined relation with Kolkata, these good old people carriers are facing a slow death.

Not too long ago, when Kolkata roads were full of those yellow taxis, basically Hindustan Motors Ambassadors. The yellow taxis became as symbolic as the many other relics in the city is. Not too many cars or vehicles are there around the world that is synonymous with a specific city. That way, the yellow taxis of Kolkata can be compared with the yellow taxis of New York.

Since its production years between 1958 and 2014, the yellow taxis of Kolkata have remained the most dominant passenger vehicles on the city roads. Not only the yellow taxis, but private Ambassadors too were dominant on Kolkata roads. However, with time the graph went downward and consumers started shying away from good old Ambassadors that used to be synonymous with power and elegance even in the ’90s.

The globalisation, arrival of so many global car brands in the last decade of the last century changed the perception of Indian consumers. With that, the fate of the Ambassador changed too. Not being open towards the changes that the rest of the world was embracing cost Hindustan Motors Ambassador dearly. The yellow taxi in this case was nothing but a mere witness.

The final few nails in the coffin were when HM’s owner Birla family announced production seize of the car in 2014 and the arrival of competitive players like Uber and Ola with a fresh and appealing business model for the stakeholders. Since then, the iconic and Kolkata’s heritage yellow taxis’ health has been deteriorating rapidly. The last nail in its coffin seems to be the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown.

The yellow taxi with the red cloth flapping from its driver side mirror is an enduring visual I cannot forget. Quintessential Ambassador, it is a symbol of democratic public mobility.

~ Avik Chattopadhyay, former head of marketing, product planning, and PR at Volkswagen India

When these organised and cash-rich ride-hailing service players entered the market, the unorganised individual players like yellow taxi operators were like small fishes in a fish tank with two big sharks. Innovation was the only way to survive and for that, the yellow taxi players required adequate government support, which was not there and still not available.

The worker unions’ too did more harm than doing good to these individual players. There were other reasons as well. The yellow taxi drivers themselves are also responsible for this lacklustre situation of their once flourished business. Their behaviours like rejecting the passengers, demanding more money than the meter-driven fare, using faulty metres to squeeze cash from the passengers too have impacted their business.

From middle-class’ go-to transporter to fading glory

Yellow taxis in India always remained the favourite carriers of the middle class, who till some point had no courage or ability to buy and maintain a personal car despite being ambitious. The yellow taxis were their go-to vehicle for commuting in the city. This was until the economic reform took place in the early 1990s. Even after the economic reform, yellow taxi usage increased substantially. However, with the increasing number of personal vehicles on Kolkata roads, the pressure started building up on the yellow taxi operators, which grew substantially after ride-hailing operators such as Uber, Ola, Meru Cab arrived here.

I feel noistalgic when I see yellow taxis. There are refusal issues and app-cabs are more comfortable, but I find the bright yellow taxis very beautiful. It’s a beautiful look and feel experience for me. They are a part of this city’s heritage that should be protected.

~ Aparajita Ghosh, actor, writer and columnist

Nowadays, the yellow taxis that once used to be the go-to vehicle for the middle class don’t found many takers in terms of passengers. The classic cabs have remained in the mainstream Kolkata culture since they first rolled onto the streets in 1958. Manufactured by Hindustan Motors until 2014, these Ambassador cabs have been called “King of Indian Roads” due to their reliability and prevalence.

Several thousands of ambassador cabs or yellow taxis still ply on the city roads. You would find quite a few yellow taxis parked at any taxi stand anywhere in the city. The Ambassador taxis in the city used to be traditionally coloured as black and yellow or just yellow. While the black and yellow taxis that have almost disappeared in the last two decades used to ply in the city, the yellow taxis would travel intercity.

Yellow taxis are all about refusal. I’ve been refused by more yellow taxis than men. However, somehow my mother always had a great record with them. She could always hail anyone a taxi.

~ Labanya Datta, Radio Jockey and voice artist

The ever-increasing demand for app-based cabs along with pandemic-induced lockdown, skyrocketing fuel prices have fuelled what seems like an end of the yellow taxis. After facing troubles in the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, several yellow taxi drivers have sold off their cars to make ends meet.

Yellow taxi and Sikh connection

Sikhs have been an integral part of Kolkata’s 300-year-old culture. If Kolkatans are fond of the Punjabi dhabas and North Indian eateries all over the city servicing exotic dishes, they are equally fond of the turban-wearing taxi drivers who are a part of Kolkata’s culture and heritage. There was a time when yellow taxis were synonymous with the Sikh drivers.

When I hear yellow taxi, some very fond memories come to my mind. Even though the yellow cabs are slowly diminishing from city roads, they will always remain special to me and certainly a chunk of Kolkata’s rich heritage.

~ Mainak Das, Business Journalist, Hindustan Times

The Sikh drivers driving the yellow taxis are only a few these days. The majority of them have now moved to the app-cab business. The business opportunity the yellow taxis used to offer in the city, made taxi driving a lucrative occupation for the people who came from outside the state in search of luck. Sikhs and people from Bihar were the majority among these people who were also accounted for the majority of taxi drivers in the city.

The Sikhs who are still continuing their occupation as yellow taxi drivers despite many challenges are frequent visitors to the Balwant Singh’s Eating House or Balwant Singh ka Dhaba in South Kolkata’s Harish Mukherjee Road, adjacent to the Gurudwara Sant Kutiya.

Yellow Taxi

The legacy lives on

It is true that generation Z is more comfortable with the app cabs that are readily available just a few swipes away on their smartphones, instead of taking the hassle of getting a yellow taxi. But, the legacy of those yellow machines still lives on, especially among the people who grew up in this city before the era of app-cabs. The nostalgia of those yellow taxis with plush rear bench-form seats, the noisy diesel engine and their black fumes too are entwined with this three-century-old city. As long as this city and its soul will live, its love for the yellow taxis will continue to exist just like Rabindranath, rosogolla and football.

Also Read: Hitch a ride on this yellow taxi, feel green

Shreyasi Dey
Shreyasi Dey
Having extensive experience in accounts and inventory management, Shreyasi Dey has been a passionate writer and a city journalist. Worked with The Times of India, Ei Samay, Discovery India, Dainik Sambad, Aajkaal.


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