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Pandemic-hit auto drivers face financial, mental strain

The auto drivers are also complaining about the implementation of the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act, 2019 in December last year which hiked compounding fees on traffic offenses.

Pune |
Updated: January 30, 2022 5:06:34 am
Auto driver Sanjay Kale has had to postpone an operation because of losses he incurred due to the pandemic. (Express Photo)

Written by Sangam

Pune’s auto-rickshaw drivers are once again at the receiving end of the Covid-19 pandemic. Like in the first and second waves, they are feeling the heat even during the third wave. Along with the mental stress, the drivers are dealing with a financial crisis due to the declining number of passengers which is leading to multiple other issues.

“Before the arrival of the pandemic, an auto-rickshaw driver got 10-15 passengers a day, which has reduced to three to four now. The daily profit has also halved from Rs 500-600 to Rs 200-300. This is causing multiple problems, including managing the household, funding our children’s education and so on,” says Baba Kamble, president of the Maharashtra Rickshaw Panchayat, a union of auto-rickshaw owners and drivers.

“This has led auto-rickshaw drivers in defaulting the loan payments which is subsequently resulting in finance companies filing cases against us. In many instances, even our autos have been confiscated. These companies are not giving any reprieve given the current state of affairs,” he added.

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Ayub Sheikh, an auto driver, who has been driving the three-wheeler for the last 25 years, said, “I have an outstanding loan of Rs 80,000 after multiple lockdowns affected my finances. I took money for daily survival and now I have to pay Rs 6,000 every month to my lenders. Due to this loan, I had to cancel my son’s plan to pursue MBA and am now in two minds about whether to allow my daughter to continue her education after 12th.”

Sanjay Kale has been experiencing back pain for a while now due to his slipped disc. Kale faces problems while sitting for long and somehow manages to drive the auto-rickshaw throughout the day. Kale had planned to get himself operated this year but had to postpone after the pandemic hit once again. “The operation requires Rs 35,000-Rs 40,000 and a decline in my daily income forced me to postpone it for some months,” he said.

Some auto-rickshaw drivers are also facing mental health issues and sudden change in emotions due to a drop in business. Anil Kamble, regretting his aggressive behaviour, said, “I become aggressive at times when I don’t get enough passengers. Mostly I am capable of controlling my emotions but sometimes, I burst out. The first victims are my fellow autowalas and family members.”

However, auto drivers’ misery this time is not as severe as compared to the second wave. Ashok Salekar, president of the Shivneri Rickshaw Union, remembers how he and his union members helped 800-900 auto drivers with daily rations last year. “Conditions are not extreme like the last wave but yes the auto drivers are facing challenges,” he said.

The auto drivers are also complaining about the implementation of the Motor Vehicle (Amendment) Act, 2019 in December last year which hiked compounding fees on traffic offenses.

The fine for offenders now ranges from Rs 200 to Rs 1 lakh depending on the offense. The state government believes that strict implementation of the new amendment will ensure better road safety and discipline. Drivers feel that the new fines are adding unnecessary financial burden during the distressing time.

Another challenge is the operation of cab companies which have challenged their monopoly and according to auto drivers “eaten into their business”.

Rubbing salt to their wound, the cab companies have introduced bike taxi services in Pune, which is further damaging the scope. The drivers are increasingly worried about the growing demand for cab services and bike taxis, especially in the urban areas.

Earlier, in a meeting with Maharashtra Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil, the Maharashtra Rickshaw Panchayat had raised four main demands that included a welfare board for auto-rickshaw drivers, old age pension, interest-free loan for purchase of autos and financial help for their children’s education.

Expressing dismay over the one-time payment of Rs 1,500 by the state government, the union is demanding Rs 5,000 every month on the lines of Delhi and Andhra Pradesh.

“The auto unions have long argued that the government should ensure social security given the fact that auto-rickshaw drivers contribute more than Rs 50,000 into the government’s treasury at the time of purchase and Rs 15,000 every year as insurance and other payments,” Kamble added.

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