Mumbai's Padminis head for scrapyard

About 65,000 Padminis (foreground) plied Mumbai's roads at their peak in the mid-1990s, but only about 300 are left.
About 65,000 Padminis (foreground) plied Mumbai's roads at their peak in the mid-1990s, but only about 300 are left.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

MUMBAI • They were named after a legendary Indian queen and synonymous with Mumbai for 50 years, but the last Premier Padmini taxis will soon embark on their final journey - to the scrapyard.

The compact black-and-yellow cabs, based on an Italian Fiat and often boasting elaborately patterned interiors, were once ubiquitous across the congested roads of India's financial capital and have been featured in many Bollywood movies.

About 65,000 Padminis plied Mumbai's roads at their peak in the mid-1990s. But a gradual phasing out in favour of more environment-friendly vehicles has meant that only about 300 splutter around today. Officials predict they will disappear completely next year.

For many, the passing of the Indian-built vehicle will be the end of an unforgettable chapter in Mumbai's history.

"It is an iconic car because for so long, it was the only vehicle used by taxi operators here. It must have been the largest fleet in the world," taxi union chief A.L. Quadros said.

The first Padminis, an Indian take on the Fiat 1100 Delight, rolled off production lines in Mumbai, then called Bombay, in 1964 under a licensing agreement with the Italian car manufacturer.

They were initially known as "Fiat taxis" before being renamed Padmini in 1973 after mythical Hindu queen Rani Padmini.

Mumbai authorities in the 1960s opted for the Padmini over the bulkier Hindustan Motors' Ambassador - the taxi of choice in Delhi and Kolkata - and their numbers increased exponentially during the 1970s and 1980s.

"The Padmini was chosen because it was small and attractive. It was nice to drive... you could park it anywhere easily," said Mr Quadros.

Not known for their speed or boot space, Padminis have low ceilings, a large gear stick to the left of the steering wheel and quirky silver door handles, which require passengers to trickily lift up and push to get out.

Today, many have colourful carpeted ceilings and seat covers while some boast neon lights that illuminate the inside of the cab at night.

But they are also known for dodgy brakes, doors that do not close properly and a tendency to let in water during Mumbai's four-month summer monsoon.

Liberalisation paved the way for the arrival of more spacious, reliable, comfortable and fuel-efficient vehicles such as Hyundai models.

Production of Padminis was stopped in 2000.

Their death knell was finally sounded in 2013 when the government implemented an anti-pollution order banning cars more than 20 years old from Mumbai's roads.

The number of Padminis has declined rapidly since and Mr Quadros expects there will be none left on the roads by the end of next year.

Taxi driver Mukund Shukla, 47, who has been driving his Padmini for 20 years, is sad about the prospect of his vehicle being sold for scrap.

"This Padmini has given me company for two decades and I will miss it deeply."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2017, with the headline 'Mumbai's Padminis head for scrapyard'. Print Edition | Subscribe