The thrills and ordeals of a share-auto

We flag down a share-auto in front of our office near the K.K.Nagar arch for a ride in that notorious vehicle on Madurai roads. The black and yellow machines grunt on the roads, emitting clouds of smoke and packing in an unlawful number of passengers.

Driver Siva swerves off the track to stop in front of us, unmindful of the hazard it may cause to the vehicle behind him. He grins, “Sit.” Our eyes scan the seats. “Konjam adjust pannunga,” he cajoles and we push ourselves in, one on the lower deck and the other squeezed in with three other passengers on the upper wooden plank.

Our man at the wheel vrooms and feels like actor Rajnikanth in the film Baadshah. “I like Rajni Sir’s role and feel happy doing my work. I don’t charge anything from women passengers whom I ferry to the hospital for delivery,” he says.

Two of our co-passengers discuss house politics while a paati from Vadipatti munches her vettalai. Another old couple thinks we are tourists and advises us to hire the auto for the day and go around the city. Good way to complete our story perhaps, but it would leave us a bucket of broken bones and poorer by 1000 bucks.

An aged lady is dropped off 10 yards from her destination. There is a sudden outburst from her as she thrusts a five rupee note into the driver’s hand.

We get down at South Gate and get into another auto going to Avaniyapuram. The minimum charge in a share-auto is Rs.5, the same as in town buses. But the regular autos charge at least Rs.40. A round trip in a share-auto usually costs Rs.25 depending on the distance. That is why Karuppusamy is a regular on share-autos. “It is like my own three-wheeled car. You don’t have to wait at the bus stop and you can also board and alight where you want,” he says, clutching the rod above his head. He suggests that we go up to the airport and watch planes landing and taking off.

Raja Mohammed has been driving his auto on rent ever since he returned from Saudi Arabia six months ago. “It is not a very lucrative job. You can just manage your daily needs.”

On an average, he makes Rs.300 a day apart from what he spends on fuel. He pays Rs.9,000 as rent per month. The vehicle leaps over a speed breaker, throws us into the air and brings us back down with a thud. We hold on tight with our eyes focussed straight ahead.

At Villapuram, Senthil Kumar becomes our new driver. With a U-turn towards Subburaman Bridge, we enter South Marret Street, a busy market area. Like a lawn mower, the auto forces its way down the narrow streets and the sea of traffic. Each time it comes dangerously close to any other vehicle, the brakes jolt us. By the time we cross over to East Marret Street after a couple of misses, we become fans of Senthil’s driving skills. Each time he is about to knock down the cyclist in front, he scrapes past, managing to avoid the potholes too.

We rock and roll as the vehicle bounces from one lane to another with little regard for what’s going on behind or ahead. By the time we are on the northern side of Vaigai at Anna bus stand, our backbones are rattled.

We get off to straighten ourselves and wave at the next rick. Rajkumar is the proud owner of his vehicle. Working from six in the morning till 11 at night, he earns Rs 600 to 700 daily. “I bought the vehicle for Rs.2,00,000 on loan,” he says. “Every Collector brings in new rules for share-autos. It’s difficult managing traffic, passengers and police every day,” he sighs. “You may be caught anywhere for any random reason and be fined.”

The minimum fine autowallahs cough up is Rs.500. Some have got together and formed an association. “We are negotiating for separate auto stands. There are two or three in the core city areas.”

Whether it is rented or owned, the bond a driver shares with his rickshaw is special. It is more than a machine. “That’s the reason you will find many autos with eyes drawn on their front,” says Rajarajan, from Simmakal. For him, his rickshaw is God. “It’s a special gift from my mother and it is my sole source of income,” he says.

The calm-looking Rajan slams on the brakes, then squeezes between a bus and a pack of motorcycles. There is nothing we can do. We are committed to this journey.

“For many, the rickshaws are more than just a machine. That’s the reason you will find many autos with eyes drawn on their front,” he says. The calm looking Rajan slams on the brakes, takes a jerky turn squeezing between a bus and a pack of motorcycles. There is nothing we can do. We are committed to this journey.

The driver has itchy fingers for his horn, but it’s futile. We swallow the diesel fumes. And suddenly every driver takes off, assuming that the rest will figure it out. We smack our heads on the metal roof as the auto hits a deep pothole. Vehicles pull onto the shoulder for fear of death. Bicyclists and pedestrians come within inches of being clipped and yet seem oblivious to the danger.

Many drivers paint catchy captions, thoughtful slogans, kitschy designs and art on their vehicles. Holding on tight, we spot “Ulaippe Uyarvu” (Hard work alone will take you to heights) and “Vaazhga valamudan” (Live happily).

Back in the office it is ‘hard work’. And to ‘live happily’, we might see an orthopaedic before we get ready for our next article.

Ravichandran, RTO, North, says that what people call share-autos these days are simply autorickshaws. “The original share-autorickshaw is a larger vehicle, painted black. The seating capacity of that vehicle is six, including the driver, whereas the seating capacity of the current share-autos is just four, same as the normal autorickshaws.” He adds that the real share-autorickshaws were banned as they caused air and noise pollution. Only a few of those vehicles are left in the city. “We have also stopped issuing permits to share-autorickshaws for the past six months. There are already too many on the roads,” he says.

Natarajan, RTO, South, says, “Often these autos are loaded with seven or eight people. Though the rule is only three passengers at a time, sometimes a maximum of five are allowed.” According to him, the strict restrictions imposed on share-autos have considerably reduced the number of accidents.