If Makkal Auto pulls off its business plan, Coimbatore can really go to town with it, writes Pankaja Srinivasan

Tense, resentful and unhappy describes me whenever I get into an auto. I am not the only way who feels this way in Coimbatore. But it looks like things are changing. This morning, I called Makkal Auto. “Vanakkam Madam, sollunga,” a friendly voice greets me. I book an auto for later that morning and it arrives right on time.

A smartly turned out D. Muthuraj gets out of the vehicle, wishes me a good morning and politely asks me where I have to go. There is free bottled water on the side for ‘guests’ (that is me, the passenger), and a choice of newspapers in Tamil and English. There is also a first aid kit and a pamphlet with driver information.

When I reach office, a printed bill is handed to me and it says the fare is Rs. 44. Unbelievable! I travel seven kilometres from my residence to work, and over the years I have paid fares ranging from Rs. 150 to Rs. 200 and often more. The rates in Makkal Auto are Rs. 14 for the first two kilometres and Rs. 6 per kilometre after that.

T. Selvaraj is the man behind Makkal Auto. He says he wants to change the much-maligned auto system in the city. “The service in Coimbatore is unorganised. But it can be streamlined and made user friendly.” In order to make the auto experience pleasant and, at the same time, keep the drivers motivated, Selvaraj has put an efficient system in place. “Even with the existing fares that we charge, drivers can earn up to Rs. 15,000 a month. And if the Government fixes a rate similar to the one in Chennai, it will get even more efficient, and both drivers and guests will be happy.”

Driver Muthuraj is enthusiastic about his new job. He was a tourist bus driver earlier and he gave it up to join Makkal Auto. “There was stiff competition. There were many rounds of interviews before we were selected,” he says, proudly. Selvaraj invited the selected candidates along with their families to explain his dream for Makkal Auto. The successful candidates were put through an intensive training on behaviour.

“We are paid Rs. 5,000 a month and we get 25 per cent batta. If we stick with the job for 100 days, our pay is hiked to Rs, 6,000, and the batta goes up to 30 per cent. At the conclusion of 250 days, we are eligible for loans up to a lakh,” says Muthuraj, who says he won’t dream of quitting this job. Makkal Auto takes care of the drivers’ health insurance and provident fund, once they are confirmed. The drivers get a petrol card, a cell phone, three sets of uniform and shoes. Their salaries are paid into a bank account for which they have ATM cards.

So far, 50 autos have been pressed into service by Makkal Auto. Selvaraj says another 50 will join the fleet soon. But he is cautious about taking on too much. He wants to ensure that his project makes autos more people friendly. He hopes auto unions follow suit. He is convinced that a friendly, fair and reasonable approach is the only hope to keep the auto rickshaw industry alive. “It is the only way to end the perennial woes of auto drivers,” he says.

Has there been any hostility to the Makkal Auto from the others? “Not too much,” says Selvaraj diplomatically. And Ranjit, the Makkal Auto driver who drives me home, shares this story with me. He went to Karumbukadai to pick up a passenger. When he got there, other auto drivers surrounded him, some of them none too friendly. The woman who got into the auto waved them away, saying, “It was my husband who gave me the number of Makkal Auto and asked me to call them. Avarum auto driver dhaan.”

Call Makkal Auto at 0422-4000800.

Code of conduct

Auto drivers must be punctual and courteous. They should not ask for tips. They cannot get into the driver’s seat smelling of alcohol or cigarettes.

They must tender the exact change. If the passenger wants to complain about the driver, there is a red ‘panic’ button on the meter. Press it and an alarm goes off in the control room. People there will know exactly which auto you are travelling in and who the driver is.

Any misdemeanour on the part of the driver will cost him a heavy penalty and, maybe, even his job.