“There is no Ola or Uber here sir, try to book through Jugnoo” said Naseer, our host in Srinagar. We decided to book a homestay instead of a hotel for our stay because we had gone during the peak of the season and none of the hotels were available at a decent price. I quickly installed Jugnoo but was unable to book a cab. Finally I went to Naseer and asked him for help. He said “don’t worry one bit, just wait” and with that he made a call “Basheer bhai! Where are you?” After a little pause he continued, “yes, come in fifteen minutes.” Ten minutes later Naseer was at our door “the auto is here sir, you can leave when you’re ready.”
Basheer bhai was standing at the gate smiling, holding open the door to his auto. As I got in, I marvelled at this autorickshaw; it had a door on both sides, protecting the passengers from the wind. Basheer had even put a soft cushion on the seat to make the ride comfortable for his passengers. “Where would you like to go sir?” he asked softly. “Dal Lake. How much would it be?” we asked. He turned back, smiled and said “you give whatever you feel is right.” The auto started running and it was easily the smoothest auto ride that I have ever gone on; the engine murmured instead of roaring and shrieking and Basheer bhai ensured none of the few potholes of Srinagar found his wheels; he somehow managed to evade all of them.
We had a long discussion with him, telling him that we really don’t know the rates here so he should at least give us an estimate. After five minutes he said “ok fine, you can give 150 rupees.” We took his number and then went ahead for our meeting.
After getting free I called him and asked if he could pick us up, he replied “sir I am on the other side of town, but you just wait for five minutes, I will call you back.” Within five minutes he called back and said “I have spoken to my friend and given him your number, he will be there in less than five minutes.” As expected, I got a call five minutes later “sir, my auto number is 8739, Basheer bhai sent me, where are you?” I spotted 8739 and approached the auto. He got out, greeted me politely and opened the door of the auto.
As I sat and enjoyed the comfortable ride I couldn’t help but wonder about the efficiency of this entire system; these autowallahs were running an analogous Ola/Uber service. The meaning of digital has evolved over the past two decades and Kashmir, a state plagued by Internet shutdowns has also found a way to stay connected and find local level solutions. These autowallahs have realised the volatility of the region and adapted to form their own network, independent of any mobile apps and the various terms and conditions they come with.