Women auto drivers offer safe and hassle-free rides in Chennai



Vol 5 | Issue 40

If you were to land in Chennai, Tamil Nadu’s state capital, one of these days, do not be surprised to see sari-clad women with khaki jackets zipping around the city ferrying passengers in black-and-yellow autorickshaws.

These women have been trained and employed by Makkal (people) Auto, a transport service that runs a high-tech and safety-centric auto fleet for women, by women.

Women drivers have been employed by Makkal (people) Auto, a private operator in Chennai (Photos: Hema Vijay\WFS)

Makkal Auto, which is the brainchild of Mansoor Ali Khan, a 27-year-old techie, solves two crucial problems in one go – it not only provides a respectable, lucrative livelihood option to women in need but also makes the daily commute of their well-to-do counterparts safe and hassle-free.

To book an auto, all one needs to do is call a service number or download their app on the smart phone.

As someone who runs his own software development firm and has been keenly following the public discourse on issues surrounding the mobility of women and increasing gender violence, Khan decided to use his skills to make a difference.

Instead of regular meter, Khan’s autos come fitted with a tablet that has an embedded camera, audio recorder and a GPS tracking system and runs on a special software.

While normally the touchscreen displays the details of the driver, including a photograph, name, license and mobile number, if the rider taps on the ‘Help’ button, it sets in motion a series of actions.

“Immediately, the camera and audio recorder will become active and give a direct feed to our call centre. At the same time, it will also record the goings on in the vehicle.

“Meanwhile, an alert will be texted to our staff, who will inform the local police and provide them with the exact coordinates of the auto as well as other crucial information that can come in handy.

“Right now we are trying to get permission to link the tablet feed with the police server so that the SOS signal can directly reach them as well. This facility is available on all our autos whether run by women or men,” explains Khan.

Apart from ensuring security, the innovator has worked out other uses for the tablet. For one, it tracks the route of the autorickshaw so that the driver is not tempted to take the longer way to earn some extra cash.

“And we are selling advertisement space on this device to generate some extra revenue for the drivers. Ads of local restaurants, sales announcements and film promos are already being shown,” he adds.

If the commuters are happy today then so are the female drivers, who are an integral part of the Makkal Auto success story.

Once lonely, destitute and struggling, they have become trendsetters in their own right. Srikala, 35, who has separated from her husband, has been driving a Makkal Auto for many months now and is pleased with the way things have worked out for her.

“Driving a Makkal Auto is a win-win. They run a call centre through which they generate business for me. The struggle is less and income is assured. Moreover, if I ever encounter a problem on the road or am harassed by traffic cops they immediately come to my rescue,” she says.

Srikala’s routine is set – she begins her day with “school savaris” (she drives children to school) and winds up by six in the evening. Though she does ferry male commuters who “look relatively harmless such as old men or those accompanied by their family”, she likes to stick to picking up female passengers.

If Srikala decided to become an auto driver to make ends meet, Loganayaki, 27, took it up to improve her earnings.

Women drivers easily earn between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a day

“Before I got into this profession, I was a home care nurse. My pay was much less and I worked odd hours and night shifts in unknown people’s homes. Driving an autorickshaw is a far better proposition.

“After paying for the auto rental and petrol expenses, I make about Rs 600 a day. I know I can earn much more as I gain more experience and make contacts,” says the woman, who has been driving a Makkal Auto for six months.

How do they deal with the male rickshaw drivers, who are greater in number and notorious for their bad attitude on the road? According to Loganayaki, till date she has mostly been treated with respect.

“There have been a few snide and sarcastic remarks by passers-by on how ‘women should be in their homes and not on the road’, but on the whole most have reacted positively,” she points out.

Nevertheless, what matters to her is the support she has got from her family. Loganayaki’s daughter, who is doing her B.Com at a city college, never fails to introduce her “independent and bold mother” to her friends.

Like Srikala and Loganayaki, Shanti, Usha and Parameshwari are content with their career. In fact, they were among the first ones to sign up with Makkal Auto, which presently has around 25 women drivers in their fleet of 100-odd autos. The trio is only to willing to spell out the merits of this initiative and even motivates others like them to join in.

Once a woman decides to become an auto driver, the Makkal Auto management takes over: they provide a three-month training and then help out with getting a license.

Once she is road ready, she can hire an autorickshaw from them for a charge of Rs 150 per day, which is much lower than the rental rate of Rs 300 in the open market.

She also gets an insurance cover of Rs 3,00,000. What’s more, there are no fixed timings that she needs to follow. “But most women find it convenient to start by seven in the morning, after they have done a bit of their own household work,” Khan shares, “And they wind up in the evening so as to be home with their families. A few are game to drive till around 8.30 pm.”

As auto drivers, they easily earn between Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 a day. Tariffs set by the state government assure a driver of a baseline earning of Rs 1,000 if s/he covers 100 kilometres.

As a policy, Makkal Auto drivers refuse to pocket tips. But there is a tip box where commuters can make donations if they so wish. This money is used by the Makkal Auto trade union for the education of the children of the drivers.

And once the women have completed 1,000 days of driving, Khan plans to give away the so-far rented auto to the drivers. “An auto costs around Rs 2.5 lakh if you include its registration fee. So it’s financially feasible for us to gift the autos to these women after a 1000-day run,” he says.

As far as social experiments go Khan’s has thus far worked well, “If I as private operator have been able to achieve success imagine the scale of impact if the government comes on board.”

Here’s hoping it can be scaled up to reach out to many more women. - Women's Feature Service

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