A ride with a difference

The Maa Ulaa team PHOTO: SHAJU JOHN

The Maa Ulaa team PHOTO: SHAJU JOHN  

Maa Ulaa, a bike-taxi service run entirely by the differently-abled, claims to be the first of its kind in the country. AKILA KANNADASAN meets the people behind it

If there’s one thing that K. Balaji hates more than being unemployed, it’s being patronised. Which is why the differently-abled 34-year-old gave up his job of making PowerPoint presentations for a small company. But life went on — he had a scooter and kept himself occupied by riding to meditation classes in the evenings. “I would drop Ramalingam, a friend, every day after class, and he casually mentioned that I should do this as a paid service,” remembers Balaji. “I thought I should give it a try.”

Balaji’s first savari was from Royapuram. “I approached a young man, asking if he wanted a ride. I felt awkward at first, but I wanted this to work,” he smiles. The youngster, although a little puzzled, hopped on, and gave Balaji Rs. 20 once he was dropped off at his destination. “I was so thrilled,” says Balaji. He knew then what he was going to do with his life — start a bike-taxi service. “But not just any bike-taxi service; one that was operated entirely by the differently-abled,” he adds.

Balaji’s ready smile and cheerful voice ensured that his idea worked — for being an entirely new concept, not many were willing to ride with a stranger. “I’m quite sociable; I never think twice about approaching a person to ask if they want a ride. Once I explain what I do, most people are very supportive.” Balaji gradually started making an income sufficient enough to buy his medicines himself. (He has Transverse myelitis).

His friend Mohammed Gaddaffe, also differently-abled, joined him, and gave their team the name ‘Maa Ulaa’, for ‘Maatru Thiranali Ulaa’, meaning ‘A differently-abled outing’. Gaddaffe, who until recently taught History in Presidency College, started looking out for more young men to be recruited for their bike-taxi service.

That’s when K. Kuppan came into the picture. His mother sells fruits on NSC Bose Road, and Kuppan had a job arranging lights at a photo studio. “I went back to work as usual after a holiday, and found that someone else was hired in my place,” he says. “My employer pointed out that I found it difficult to even climb the stairs... I took the hint.” The 25-year-old is completely different from Balaji when it comes to dealing with people. “On my first day, I waited and waited, thinking a thousand times how to approach a customer,” he says.

The Maa Ulaa team has six members in all — K. Balaji, who works in and around Central Station, K. Kuppan (Pookadai), Mohammed Gaddaffe (Beach Station), B. Ramesh (Thiruvanmiyur), G. Tamizharasan (Vyasarpadi), and Vijay (Mount Road). Balaji says that customers are very encouraging. “Auto drivers at Central, in fact, have arranged for savaris so many times,” he adds. He’s had a lot of women customers as well. “The traffic police are friendly too. Once, a traffic policeman stopped me to shake hands with me,” chips in Kuppan.

The traffic police also gave them some advice: don’t wait at bus-stops; this ensures that they don’t threaten the share-autos. “Which is why we stand a good distance from bus-stops,” explains Gaddaffe. “Our target customers are those who regularly travel by autos.”

Gaddaffe has formulated a tariff system that ensures fair pricing. “We want to become at least 20-member strong. Only then can we cover the entire city,” he says. “Our team has been approached by a popular app-based taxi service and Vroom, a bike-sharing service, asking if we can join them. If talks go well, we will soon be part of the services,” he adds.

Gaddaffe is now convincing as many differently-abled people as possible to become bike-taxi drivers. “Almost 90 per cent of us are unemployed or are being paid very little for our work,” he says. “This is because employers think that they cannot get much work done from us; they cannot set targets for us.” As a result, a majority of them quit, like Balaji and Kuppan did. “Bike-taxis are a way to address this problem. Since most of us own bikes, it’s all a matter of getting used to talking to customers,” he adds. “We can be our boss.”

The Maa Ulaa team’s dream is to take their framework to the rest of the State. “Right now, a team is being set up in Tirunelveli,” says Gaddaffe. Balaji says that he has a lot of regular customers now. “Some hop on just for the experience,” he laughs. But he’s more than happy to take them along.

For details, call 90032 05336.

Here is a short-film on Maa Ulaa

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