Only eight but the women auto drivers in Madurai have conquered the city roads and passengers by complying with traffic rules and their good behaviour. The writer meets four of them who were recently honoured by the city administration.

One would imagine them to be feminine chauffeurs. But they are all tough ladies hardened by struggle and poverty. Yet, when you see them behind the wheels of auto rickshaws manoeuvring the unruly cacophonic traffic on the city’s unsympathetic and noisy roads made even more dangerous with potholes and backbreaking speed breakers, you spot nothing but a smile.

They may look tired and also be fighting their hunger pangs silently, but never will utter ‘no’ to a passenger. “I do not have the choice of refusing a passenger from whom I get my daily meal,” says 36 years old R.Bhuvaneshwari, Madurai’s first licensed woman auto driver. She belongs to the first batch of 15 women drivers who were trained by Nanban Trust, a charitable organisation, in 1996. She still drives a rented auto and takes homes Rs.250 to 300 daily.

Bhuvaneshwari toils from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. driving up to Dindigul, Pollachi, Sivakasi. She feels happy ferrying senior citizens, the ailing or those with some disability either free of cost or whatever little they can afford. She has a dedicated band of passengers who even postpone their outings and visits if she is not free to drive them around. “They reschedule their programme matching with my timings,” she smiles.

“I have studied up to class III,” says Bhuvaneshwari, “and this is the best job I can do…be of use and good to others.” She separated from her husband within three years of marriage and brought up her two boys single-handedly. “He used to beat me,” she says showing the scars on her hands and feet.

It was not easy for 32-year-old K.Shanthi either, whose husband deserted her and their eight-year-old son five years ago. Having learnt driving at Nanban in 1996 to augment her family income, the training came in handy when she became a single parent. “My auto feeds me and my son,” she says.

Shanthi pushes herself to earn at least Rs.1,000 a day. “I drive fast,” she says and quickly adds, “but I am very careful too.” With clockwork precision she picks up and drops passengers between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. through the week. “I don’t take an off day,” she says, “and if only I am idle at certain hour, do I care to eat something from a nearby shop.”

Shanthi knows the city like the back of her palm and does up to 200 kms daily. Brimming with energy, she says in her high-pitched voice, “No, I don’t feel tired.” A recipient of Achiever’s Award from the Collector on this International Women’s Day, she finds foreigners always curious to know about her. “I have picked up a few English words,” she smiles.

Shanthi says she never argues over the payment. “If anybody haggles, I move on to the next passenger. My idea is to pack in more trips and help people reach their destinations on time.”

K.Chithra, 32, did not face a moment of hesitation to learn auto driving at a private training centre when her husband, a lorry driver died in a road accident eight years ago. She took a loan of Rs.1,30,000 and bought her own vehicle to ferry passengers. She likes to be the “anytime, anywhere” auto driver. “People call me even for late night emergencies and I never let them down,” she says. Mother of two boys, who are preparing for class X and XII Board examinations next March, Chithra says she loves to wear the khaki uniform and has driven out of Madurai too, up to Chennai and bordering districts of Andhra.

She feels happy that her elder sister Kalaiselvi inspired by her has taken to auto driving recently. Meticulous and organised, Chithra is the owner of a car too which she leases out to a private taxi company. She feels due to rapid increase in share-autos on the roads, the auto rickshaw business is dull.

P.Selvanayagi admits she lied about her age and learnt driving at the age of 15 at Nanban in 1996. “I was always little big in size compared to children of my age,” she says. She was forced to take care of her family of four sisters, one brother and mother after her father passed away. Her husband succumbed to heart attack four years ago and again she had to take care of her five-year-old daughter. “I want to educate her,” she says and dreams big too. “I want to own a bus and be known as Madurai’s first woman bus driver.”

Selvanayagi took a loan of Rs.80,000 to buy her own auto rickshaw. She is still paying her loan instalments but that doesn’t stop her from being kind to her passengers. “If I find a passenger who can’t pay in full, I charge less or let it go,” she says. Sometimes she suffers loss but she earns a lot of goodwill. “I feel the blessings will help my daughter,” she says. Distance is not a barrier for her either as she has taken her passengers up to Tirunelveli.

None of these women have any fear in their minds of travelling with male passengers or driving late in the night or out of the city. They all know to repair punctures or take care of minor snags. All four were recommended by the RTO for special awards given away by the City Police Commissioner recently.

They were selected for driving without causing road accidents, for obeying traffic rules, behaving politely with passengers and maintaining zero-complaint record. They are respected by fellow auto drivers and people in general even if they are not highly educated. “We are trusted,” they echo, “for our punctuality, honesty and safety.”

(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. E-mail soma.basu@thehindu.co.in to tell her about someone you know who is making a difference.)