A unique self-help initiative by autorickshaw drivers in Kakkanad that helps not only themselves but also people in the area in need of financial assistance

Autorickshaw drivers have a reputation for being a close knit community. The sight of a few of them taking an afternoon break and chatting in the backseat of one of their vehicles is not uncommon, and even our movies portray them as a group of active and energetic individuals always willing to help others in their fraternity.

Reinforcing this positive stereotype is a small group of drivers who operate in the vicinity of the Cochin Special Economic Zone (CSEZ) in Kakkanad, who have taken it upon themselves to band together and look out for their collective interests by forming a self-help society.

Born of necessity

Shaji Joseph, president of the CSEZ Auto Self Help Society (CASHS), says that the society was formed two years ago when two drivers from their group were injured at the same time and they had difficulty raising funds to help them. “It is a common practice to provide some financial support to friends in need but sometimes unforeseen expenses arise that are too high for us to bear. So we decided to get together and contribute for such eventualities, and the society was registered in November 2011,” he says.

Sitting at the back of Shaji’s autorickshaw on a warm afternoon, Shaji and Salvan K.K., another of the 35-odd members of the society, explain how they have organised things. “We have an executive committee of nine members, and all the drivers who are part of the organisation contribute Rs.10 a week, which is then deposited in a joint account. This gives us the luxury of knowing we can cope if an emergency arises,” says Salvan.

The society is ready to provide support whenever required, whether it is for a flat tyre or a blown battery. “If a driver needs to replace an expensive component like a battery, we lend the money and he can repay it in small instalments. For medical emergencies however, we provide the necessary funds with no payback required. The same support extends for personal matters too, such as a death in the family. We have always worked together and provided support at times like these, but now we have a structured way of doing it,” says Shaji.

Helping the community

Despite the initial idea of serving the needs of its members, CASHS has grown in stature, with the society now doing its share of community service. “As auto drivers, we are in touch with the people, we hear a lot about their troubles and needs. So both the years since we started we have held anniversary celebrations and printed prize coupons, for which we seek sponsorships from various organisations. The money collected through the sale of these coupons usually goes into helping people in the locality such as patients who require medical aid and underprivileged students. Thankfully, we have never had to use these finances for our own needs and have been able to help the needy instead,” says Salvan with a smile.

This modesty resonates in their words as they describe their efforts which have earned them goodwill and recognition from the people around the CSEZ. A few organisations, as a result of the society’s work, have expressed willingness to provide financial support to those in need of medical aid in the area.

Shaji and Salvan go on to explain the simple anniversary celebrations. “We erect a small stage and sing a few songs, cut a cake and have a good time,” says Shaji jovially, “The local establishments and authorities have been very supportive as well. This year we hope to increase the scale of the celebration and expand the gathering to include our families too.”

Despite its easygoing nature, the society has guidelines for members. “While we are always willing to help our fellow members in case of an accident, we do not condone drunk driving and will not provide assistance for accidents caused as a result. Also, despite our members having differing political affiliations, we make sure that their ideologies do not colour our efforts as a group,” says Salvan.

Their popularity has led to drivers at nearby auto stands also banding together to form loosely organised societies, with all the drivers in the area assisting them with their anniversary fund collection exercise.

But CASHS has more work to do. “It is a good feeling to know we have some resources to provide for our fraternity and the needy. It is not much, but we do what little we can,” concludes Shaji as he fires up his autorickshaw and pulls out from under the shady tree to look for another fare.

The autorickshaw blends into the traffic easily, with only the society’s sticker on the back covering distinguishing it as a member of the fraternity that looks out for its own.

Doing their bit

The society is also vigilant to the needs of the area in which they operate. Upon realising that the street lighting and the main spotlight at the junction where their stand is located had stopped functioning, they organised a candlelight protest to bring the situation to the attention of the authorities. As part of their efforts towards the betterment of society, they are planning to raise money for surgeries and conduct blood donation camps in their area of operation.