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Driving in India with Chauffeurs

© Courtesy Leela Palace, New Delhi

Learn about your car’s driver, and you’ll see into the past and present of India.

Smiling all over his dark, handsome face, M. Manohar, 50, ushers me into a meeting room at the corporate office of Bangalore-based Triton Valves Ltd., India’s largest manufacturer of automotive tire valves. With the quiet authority of a respected senior employee, he politely asks the office boy to turn up the air-conditioning, before sending him off for two steaming cups of sweet, milky chai. In his crisp pin-striped shirt, dark trousers and well-shined shoes, he is almost indistinguishable from his highly qualified colleagues. The truth, however, is that M. Manohar quit school in seventh grade—his designation at the company simply reads “Driver.”

Manohar’s story is not unique. When India’s economy, freed from the shackles of crippling regulations in the early 1990s, began to grow exponentially, the rising tide lifted all boats. Of the country’s millions-strong blue-collar workforce, drivers and chauffeurs benefited particularly. Urban legends abound, like the one about the personal chauffeur of N.R. Narayana Murthy, founder of India’s poster-child IT company, Infosys, who was gifted stocks in the company by his boss and retired a millionaire. Drivers have even made inroads into popular culture—author Aravind Adiga focused world attention on the Indian driver by making him the central protagonist of his 2008 Man Booker Prize–winning novel, The White Tiger.

Things weren’t always this way, however. “There were hardly any driving jobs when I started out in 1979,” recalls Manohar. “My first job, at an auditing firm, paid Rs 3000 (about $60) a year, with no benefits.” Today, Manohar earns Rs 13500 ($250) a month—a 5,000 percent jump—apart from full company benefits like employer-matched contributions and health insurance. It has enabled him, even in times of steeply spiking living costs, to dress well, educate his children—his daughter is pursuing an MBA with a specialization in HR, his son an MBA in finance—and to enjoy a reasonably comfortable standard of living.

Explanations for the Indian driver’s newfound status are not hard to find. For one thing, household help—maids, cooks, gardeners, drivers and even car washers—is still so affordable in India that hiring such help is almost a cultural thing, cutting across socioeconomic levels. Indian companies, therefore, provide their senior management the services of a personal chauffeur as a matter of course, and to visiting clients and associates as part of the hospitality package. Add to this practical difficulties like long commutes, traffic-choked streets and the lack of enough comfortable, uncrowded public transport, and drivers are no longer a luxury item, but a basic necessity.

The single biggest reason for the rise in driver demand, however, particularly in cities like Bangalore, Hyderabad and Delhi, has been outsourcing. Over the last decade, a staggering number of American and British companies have relocated hundreds of thousands of jobs to India to take advantage of low-cost labor. With employees working shifts corresponding to Western time zones—shifts typically begin at midnight, 2 a.m. and 4 a.m.—door-to-door transport became crucial. Overnight, thousands of vacancies opened up for drivers. Remembers HR professional Monica Pillai, who was then part of 24/7 Customer, one of India’s biggest business processing outsourcers (BPOs), “It was life-changing for young men from mofussil or rural towns—Rs 6000 ($120) a month was a small fortune to them.”

Today, the typical career path for an Indian driver begins with a job at a BPO operation. The odd hours and the unrelenting time deadlines ensure that few last beyond six months. Then, fully aware of their employability, and with the BPO experience on their résumés, they move on to greener pastures—becoming drivers with multinational companies (good pay, assured benefits), families (light work, soft loans) or the tourism industry (generous tips—especially from foreign clients).

S.D. Dinesh, who heads up the Bangalore office of travel company Skyway International, has dealt with drivers on a daily basis over the last 15 years and has tracked their transformation closely. “Drivers today see themselves as entrepreneurs. The more motivated ones move very quickly from being drivers to being cab owners. But all of them are invariably better groomed, more customer-focused and more family-focused than before, all of which translates into a great driving experience for their clients.”

Dinesh’s observations are borne out by drivers like Laxmipati, 50, who took up his first driving job with Avis Car Rentals at the age of 42, after two decades in the Indian Armed Forces. During his four years with the company—earning Rs 7000 ($140) a month—he worked for several top managers of Avis’s corporate clients and built a network of satisfied customers. Today, he works freelance, hiring out his services to corporate clients like Kingfisher Airlines and Bangalore International Airport’s Cargo Division, making $500 in a good month. “I could earn even more if I took on long-distance tours, but I would be unhappy if I didn’t see my children every day,” he says simply, adding with a twinkle, “And I would miss my wife’s cooking.”

On his part, Manohar is clear that freelancing is not for him. “To earn more money, you have to take on more stress,” he explains, “and one cannot afford to be stressed while driving.” He looks out of the meeting room at the office where he has worked for the last 23 years. “When I joined this company, I used to drop the managing director’s little boy off to school. Today, he is executive director here, and I bring him to work,” he says, chuckling. “Why would I want to work anywhere else? This is my family.”

The Comfort Commute

How Companies in Tech Parks Arrange Transport

While company-organized transport for employees has always been de rigueur in Indian manufacturing companies with large workforces, it is now also the norm in new age sectors like information technology (IT) and business processing outsourcers (BPOs). Transport companies have seen their businesses peak as more and more companies outsource their entire transport needs to them.

IT companies are often located at the outskirts of the city, in sprawling tech parks, and the commute to work—at least an hour each way, through chaotic traffic—is stressful. Also, with the average age of the workforce hovering around 27, the percentage of employees owning their own transport is less than half. By organizing transport—read: large buses with pickup and drop-off points all over the city—for their employees, companies ensure both high productivity and good morale. As an added bonus, the company gets to wear its green heart on its sleeve.

With BPO companies, whose employees work eight-hour shifts 24/7, large buses and central pickup points will not do. Instead, these companies offer their employees door-to-door transport, in smaller 8- to 11-seat vehicles. After the shocking rape and murder of a BPO employee by her cab driver in 2005, background checks for drivers have become stringent and employee safety considerations paramount. For instance, today, cabs may never pick up a female employee first, or drop her off last.

Trippin’ & Tippin’

Strategies for Travelers

Traveling to India on business? Here are some driving pointers.

• Self-drive is not an option in India. Even companies like Hertz and Avis will offer you only chauffeur-driven cars. You may thank your stars it is so—to drive in India, you must have a serious death wish.

• The commute to work can be long and nightmarish during rush hour. Beat the traffic by leaving earlier or later—and always, always choose a hotel close to work.

• If you want to take in some sights over the weekend or head out of town, ask the travel desk at your office to hire a car for you. English-speaking drivers are not hard to find—make sure you request one specifically.

• The travel desk at your hotel can also help you to hire a car. A luxury hotel will charge you more than the standard fee, but you will be assured of good service and a safe ride.

• Tip generously; 10–15 percent is expected, but if you feel you had great service, feel free to top it up by another 5 percent. After all, the exchange rate is very much in your favor, and you will only be racking up good karma for your next life.

Roopa Pai is a freelance writer in Bangalore whose credits include Travel + Leisure Southeast Asia and The Times of India.

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