Database of drivers, efficient tracking system, call centre that’s active 24x7, third generation meter and printed bill… Shonali Muthalaly on how the Namma Auto founders are driving change

I get ripped off. Again. Like most Chennai-ites I’m wearily blasé about it. After forking out over Rs. 100 to my auto driver for a distance of less than 5 km, I check the address for the third time. There’s no signage of any kind indicating that it is the head office of Chennai’s newest vigilante.

Actually, vigilante seems too reminiscent of Batman-style justice. And, to be honest, Namma Auto as an idea seems more on the lines of Don Quixote. The founders plan to clean up Chennai’s corrupt, aggressive, meter-agnostic autorickshaw system. Make it fair, accessible and cheap. Tilting at windmills? Well, there are already reports of their staff being harassed by other auto drivers in the city. As I climb two sets of narrow stairs to access the office, I wonder how long they’ll fight to stay relevant. Then I meet the team, and change my mind. Namma Auto might just be able to redefine how we travel within Chennai.

Founders S. Abdulla and Mansoor Ali Khan launched the company on May 19, 2013 with 17 autorickshaws and a staff of six. In 40 days, they had 60 autos and an office with 52 employees.

Inside, Abdulla is intently studying his computer screen, which shows a map of Chennai with green and red dots indicating each Namma Auto, available and occupied. Click. And we’re looking at another screen, listing information on each vehicle: driver’s name, number, speed etc.

“I was in the IT profession before this,” he says, finally looking up. “Web designing for companies like Parveen Travels, developing online ticketing.” Mansoor, who I speak to later, is an MCA. Which explains why the company revolves on technology. Namma Autos, equipped with GPS and GPRS, are constantly tracked by their Call Centre, active 24/7. Eventually passengers will be able to call autos on their smart phone at the press of a button.

Abdulla is disarmingly candid about his educational background. “Very poor,” he shrugs, “I studied only till 9th Standard, in Thanjavur.” He learnt programming by himself. “I would try and try and try. Again and again.” Over the past eight years he’s lived in Chennai, he has always used autos. “I cannot ride a bike. I’m too distracted. Always thinking about technical stuff.” He realised he was spending anything between Rs. 300 and Rs. 700 a day in the process. Though, he did meet some “interesting characters. Different people with different stories. I realised how hard their lives are.”

What do they earn?

He says the city’s (approximately) 78,000 auto drivers earn anything between Rs. 1200 and Rs. 3000 a day. “From that they give the auto owner rental of Rs. 150 to Rs. 200. Fuel is Rs. 400. Then they pay for vehicle maintenance, bribes, etc. It leaves very little money for their families.” At the same time, however, he says being a passenger is just as hard. “Extra charge after 10 p.m. If it rains. If you have luggage… It’s been almost a generation since the auto drivers in Chennai have used meters.”

In 2006, the Government fixed a fare of Rs. 14 for the first 2 km, and Rs. 7 per km after that. However, after numerous petrol hikes, citizens are now paying anything from 50 to 100 per cent more. Safety is also a problem. Mansoor says, “They don’t respect people. Or follow traffic rules. They’re rude… We want to make sure a girl can take an auto at midnight and reach home safe.”

“Our autos charge Rs. 25 for the first 2 km, and then Rs.10 per km after that,” says Abdulla, opening the company’s Facebook page to show a string of congratulatory comments.” He pauses at this point, delightedly reading new comments and pointing them out.

In 2010, he opened a company called S Auto, with one vehicle. “It was driven by Murali, my friend.” The idea was to connectauto stands. “I wanted to give them technical support. But they didn’t cooperate. They earn much more by doing short distances and overcharging. It’s easy money.” One year later, he was forced to close the company. “I lost about Rs.15 to Rs. 20 lakh. At the end of one year, we had nothing.”

Last year, he realised he just had to try again. “Some dreams you can ignore. Some you can’t.” By now Chennai-ites were even more resentful about how much they had to pay autos. “Fuel prices had gone up, and with them auto fares. Even though, since 2008, it’s a Government order that autos use only LPG.”

On January 1, Mansoor and Abdulla started analysing meters, finally settling on a digital one (See box). Next, they began hiring drivers under four salary slabs. The first offers a salary of Rs. 4500 a month plus a 30 per cent commission for the driver, who gets to own the auto in 36 months. The fourth offers a salary of Rs. 18,000, with no commission and owning the auto in 42 months. Namma Auto pays for uniforms, fuel and maintenance. “We may be earning less per ride. But we have far more customers. Between 60 autos, we do about 2000 trips a day.”

Abdulla is not overly concerned by the resistance from other auto drivers. “They will eventually realise they can make so much more money this way. We ensure there is at least Rs. 600 in our drivers’ pockets everyday. We already have 320 more driver resumes now.” They plan to have about 11,000 vehicles by the end of the year. “We won’t buy them all. We also want to rent vehicles. We will fix the meters free of cost and pay a rental of Rs. 150. ”

Things are moving fast now. “It’s a pure volume game,” says Mansoor. “We will break even after 300 autos. We expect to hit that in 10-15 days.” After that plans include expanding to Madurai, Erode, Coimbatore, etc. “Once we have enough autos, maybe about 11,000 then we can offer ‘call autos.’ Abdulla adds with a chuckle, “No more soodu (hot) meters.”