The fundamental issue for auto-taxi drivers is that the government has not declared them as a feeder service despite providing first and last-mile connectivity to the public transport system, said D Dhanuraj, chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research.

Image Courtesy: The New Indian Express

KOCHI: Dileep K, a 43-year-old autorickshaw driver, has to wait for long hours to get a ride. Father of two, he is now finding it difficult to make ends meet. “My income has dropped to Rs 200 from Rs 1,000. At times, all I earn is just Rs 100 a day,” Dileep said.

The Covid pandemic and the lockdown have hit the mobility sector severely, especially daily wagers like autorickshaw and taxi drivers. Some of them have changed professions to wayside vendors while others are still searching for ways to make a living. In urban areas, the income of autorickshaw drivers reduced to one-third during the pandemic. Kerala has more than 10 lakh autorickshaw and taxi drivers together.  

“With the government promoting private vehicle commute, the situation of an autorickshaw driver is miserable,” said Syamantha Bhadran, of the Ernakulam Jilla Autorickshaw Drivers’ Cooperative Society. Struggling to recover from the first lockdown, the second lockdown has worsened things. And the fuel price hike makes survival difficult. Several autorickshaw drivers have started selling fish and vegetables. 

“After the first lockdown, I have been selling groceries in my autorickshaw,” said Rajesh P P. Living in a rented home with his wife and two schoolgoing children, he is the sole breadwinner of the family. “With this grocery business, I manage to earn Rs 500 to Rs 600 daily. I purchase vegetables from Aluva market and sell them in the city,” he said.  

With loan repayments and children’s education fees, Rajesh is finding it difficult to manage his finances.

“After the first lockdown, I continued to drive my autorickshaw but I could hardly earn Rs 200 to Rs 300 a day. And no benefit has been received from the government,” said the 44-year-old. More than 10 per cent of drivers have begun roadside business which, for now, earns them more than the autorickshaw service. “Given the government order to promote CNG and electric autorickshaws, we request subsidy for drivers to make it a reality,” said Bhadran. 

Taxi drivers and owners too are facing a similar ordeal. P M Siddique, who owns six cars, is struggling to pay his children’s school fee.“My daughter is in Class 10. With no income, I am unable to pay fees and the school authorities removed her from the virtual class,” said Siddique, who now sells eggs at Chembumukku.

“I tried to sell my Innova cabs but no one is there to buy. Many drivers have taken up painting, welding and workshop-related jobs to feed their families,” he added. The Kerala Taxi Drivers Organisation comprises 12 thousand drivers who recently submitted a petition to Transport Minister A K Saseendran. 

“Several taxis have remained in the shed after the first lockdown. How are we supposed to repay debts? We want the government to consider our situation and extend the due dates a little further,” said Rajesh Cherthala, patron, Kerala Taxi Drivers Organisation.

What can be done  

The fundamental issue for auto-taxi drivers is that the government has not declared them as a feeder service despite providing first and last-mile connectivity to the public transport system, said D Dhanuraj, chairman, Centre for Public Policy Research.

“With the price of petrol and diesel shooting up, it is difficult for these drivers to make a decent income even after the lockdown. For public transportation, the fuel should be subsidised,” he said.

He wants the government to legalise and encourage the ‘share-auto’ concept to revive the sector. According to a sales report published by drivespark.com, Kerala holds the second-highest position in sales of four-wheelers in 2020.

This article was published in The New Indian Express

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