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Empowering kings, queens of the road

Effecting change: Aishwarya (right) who runs Auto Raja Auto Rani project, with auto drivers. Photo: R. Ragu   | Photo Credit: R_Ragu

The year 2010 turned out to be unexpectedly special for Aishwarya Raman (23) and Anubhav Agrawal. Aishwarya, a student of sociology at MOP Vaishnav College, was in her final year and had to submit a thesis. She along with her team members decided to research on Chennai auto drivers.

“The project took us to various auto stands in the city. We went to areas like Chemmenchery and Kannagi Nagar and to pockets where the families of these auto drivers lived. We found out that there was a problem with the system itself. Among many things, we discovered that almost every driver was indebted to loan sharks but continued to nurture their middle-class aspirations. However, when the external examiner, who read our thesis asked for a solution, we could not offer any,” says Aishwarya. She none the less uploaded excerpts of her thesis online.

Meanwhile, in another part of the city, Anubhav, who was working as a consultant in a private company, wanted to start a business that would involve auto drivers. While researching, he came across Aishwarya’s thesis. By this time she had gone to Oxford University for her masters. They discussed his idea further and as soon as she returned, they started the ground work for their pet project, Auto Raja, which is Chennai’s call auto service.

“We went to auto unions and government offices, but were not taken seriously. When we came as students, the auto drivers would talk to us about their grievances, but when we offered our service such as low-cost GPS they refused to take us seriously. That we were young was another problem. First, we had to change the way we dressed. The next step was to start a company,” says Aishwarya, who chose to wear the sari to look more businesslike. She paired it with running shoes to make a personal fashion statement.

The two got in touch with similar groups working with auto drivers. “We met a professor who has done in-depth research on auto fares. We came up with our tariff system, which was lower than what most drivers were expecting. No one supported except one Selvam. ”

Auto Raja was officially launched in 2013. They started a Facebook page giving a helpline number to call for an auto. Either Aishwarya or Anubhav would receive the call and assign drivers for the pick up. The auto would take commuters at a reasonable rate.

Slowly the idea caught up and now 200 drivers have joined and over 2000 customers are using the services. They had to employ more people and an operator to take all the calls. The duo also hired and trained transgenders and former sex workers, who in turned trained auto drivers on how to interact with people. Following their success, Aishwarya was invited to be a part of the meeting at the secretariat, along with NGOS, social groups, public, auto drivers and unions to decide the new auto fares.

Auto Raja also works towards facilitating access for auto drovers to institutional credit.

“We work with former bank employees, who guide drivers about finance. We also wanted to provide affordable health care. Hospitals love auto drivers as they are the first people to come forward to help at an accident site. We convinced a few hospitals to give auto drivers subsidised or free care. We are also working with NGOs to help provide them and their family with quality education,” says Aishwarya.

Now Aishwarya is busy with her new venture Auto Rani. These are female auto drivers from across the city. “Most of them are single mothers and want to earn to give their family a better life. Apart from working with regular female auto drivers, we are training 30 women to drive autos. Since one has to have a four-wheelers driving license to drive an auto, we have talked to the transport department and they have asked driving schools to not charge them,” says Aishwarya, who says that the problems when it come to female auto drivers.

“We have had instances where these ladies were harassed by the male drivers and not allowed to work. We plan to provide them with smart phones with an app they can use to immediately inform a police station nearby in case of emergency.” Auto Raja’s office is at Manady. You can book autos with Auto Raja and Rani at 7200321294 or 43213339.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 2:33:22 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/downtown/empowering-kings-queens-of-the-road/article5928285.ece

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