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Need a ride? Just ask the pilot

Goa’s motorcycle pilot system may be on its way out but it can still be counted on for quick and safe transport

Motorcycles can be hailed at stands, popular markets and key junctions
Motorcycles can be hailed at stands, popular markets and key junctions (Photo: Rohit Chawla)

His name was Roy. He sported a thick beard that lent his appearance a scruffy note. He would be stationed at the Mapusa Court junction, in front of a driving school office, from early morning. He was a very important figure in our lives once we started college.

St Xavier’s Higher Secondary School and College lie atop a hill. Every morning, my friends and I, and many other students, would walk up the slope to the college, using those precious 20 minutes to catch up on each other’s lives. Those who didn’t want to walk up would take the “Mercedes", a trundling blue college bus packed with students. Those who were pressed for time had another option: Roy.

Old-timers have regular pilots whom they call home or set pre-decided pick-up times with
Old-timers have regular pilots whom they call home or set pre-decided pick-up times with (Photo: Assavari Kulkarni)

A quick hop on to Roy’s black and yellow motorcycle, and, within minutes, we would be deposited at the college gate. Each trip cost us precious 10 (in the mid-1990s), which would come out of our allowance for the day.

Roy was a “pilot", a motorcycle taxi concept once unique to Goa. These yellow and black taxis can be found at bus stands and across the state. Pilots were popular in the 1980s and 1990s with single commuters and those travelling to villages where public transport was, and sometimes still is, weak. They were affordable and knew the best shortcuts.

“Earlier, there were only private vehicles. The Goa Motorcycle Taxi Rider’s Association (GMTRA) started in 1979 and could only be registered in 1980 as the government had to create a separate category. There were 150 pilots; the rates were 50 paise for the first kilometre and 25 paise for every kilometre after that," says Santosh Govind Volvoikar, the secretary of GMTRA. Volvoikar has been a pilot for 28 years, since 1991, when the pilots were few and business was good. His “spot" is Caculo Circle, Santa Inez, in Panaji.

What was once a necessity has turned into a thing of nostalgia for me, seen through rose-tinted glasses. The pilots became a novelty once I moved out of Goa, returning only for holidays. As one of the rare Goans who doesn’t ride a bike or drive a car, I rely on pilots extensively. There is no Ola/Uber, the new GOAMILES app works occasionally, and local taxi/rickshaw operators tend to be expensive. After buses, pilots are my cheapest mode of transport. They are quick, friendly and safe.

The pilots are usually the first Goan faces I see when I reach Goa. I sometimes get my first dose of news and gossip from them: what the government is doing, which parts of the city are full of tourists, and even where to find good fish. They remember a lot of their passengers too—till a few years ago, Roy would either wave or smile at me when I walked past him.

Sitting on a bike gives me time to appreciate the countryside and observe all the changes that have taken place. I have had pilots bail me out in many time-sensitive situations. The year my mother fractured her leg, I took a day off from work to surprise her on her birthday. It was a pilot who got me home early in the morning, just as my mother was waking up. It was a pilot who took me from the Thivim railway station to my ancestral village (about 15km), in time for the mass celebrating my grandmother’s 102nd birthday—an occasion I would have missed if I had taken a bus.

Every Goan I know has used a pilot at least once. They all have stories of a “fixed" pilot, the one who can be called home or who can be counted upon to arrive at a pre-decided time. My father has his regular pilot near his office. An uncle comes to visit my grandmother on a pilot. People use them for doctor’s check-ups, to go to church, and attend to errands.

Lorraine Soares, 54, has been taking pilots since she was a teenager. The then-Mumbai resident would come to Goa during her holidays and use pilots. Back then, she would either walk to the stand or use a landline connection to call them and set up a fixed time. “I have travelled most of my life with pilots. Earlier, it was about money, safety and convenience and they would take you to your destination quickly," she says. Today, she is settled in Goa and shuttles between relatives’ homes in Parra, Saligao and Ribandar. She has fixed pilots at all of them. In all this time, she has had just one accident—a bus hit the bike and she fell and hit her head. “It wasn’t the pilot’s fault. He was kind enough to call me and enquire about my condition after I got discharged from the hospital," she says.

Regular customers like Soares are one of the reasons many pilots still stick around.

The GMTRA has 4,500 registered members in Goa but the numbers are declining. The biggest threats to pilots, says Volvoikar, are “illegal" pilots (those without a motorcycle taxi registration) and the rent-a-bike services. Government apathy, the easy availability of rented bikes, the growing number of public vehicles and inclement weather are some other causes. In addition, they aren’t technologically savvy—you have to call a pilot whose number you have, or you have to go to a stand. Motorcycle pilots have to wait for hours for their daily business and usually park out in the open. Volvoikar is on duty from 8am-8pm and on good days earns 600 and upwards; in the monsoon, it goes down to 100 or nothing. Yet, Volvoikar and other pilots can still be found at their stands, daily, helmet in hand.

“We have our regular customers who trust us. Many of them are women, often older ladies who know they are safe if they ride with us," says Volvoikar. “We are there for them."

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