Vikram Dantani, a 27-year-old Ahmedabad autorickshaw driver, made headlines on Monday evening when he drove Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supremo Arvind Kejriwal in his three-wheeler, escorted by beacon-flashing police cars, to his modest home for dinner.
Dantani’s house is located in Devipujak Dantani Nagar in Ahmedabad’s Ghatlodiya Assembly constituency, which is a BJP bastion represented by Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel. It is also a segment of the Gandhinagar Lok Sabha seat represented by Union home minister Amit Shah.
Dantani belongs to the Devipujak community , a Socially and Educationally Backward Caste (SEBC) in Gujarat. CM Patel had addressed a “sneh milan” event of this community on Sunday, which was a part of such meetings he has been addressing since last month to make an outreach to OBCs and SEBCs.
The family of Dantani, who is now in the limelight as the “autowala” who hosted Kejriwal, has been living in Devipujak Dantani Nagar for the last 35 years. He got married to Nisha, 25, two years ago and the couple has a one-year-old daughter, Riya. Nisha, who is also a Devipujak, hails from Raghubir Nagar in the Tagore Garden area of West Delhi. Kejriwal told mediapersons after the Monday dinner that he had invited Dantani’s family over to his house in Delhi.
Dantanis have been voting for the BJP, but the Covid lockdowns and the consequent price rise have now forced a rethink of their choice. On Monday, his auto had two AAP flags flying on the roof when Kejriwal rode it.
“We have been voting for BJP for so many years. We have seen the worst of times during the lockdowns in the last two years. There was no income, no benefits, no subsidies, no schemes offered to us by the MLA from our constituency, or the government. A ration packet containing 5 kgs of wheat flour and 1 kg each of cooking oil, chana daal (split chickpeas), and chana (chickpeas) were given to us during the lockdown. But this was just once, after this no ration was provided to us during the lockdowns,” says Dantani.
He has been driving his CNG-run autorickshaw bought by his late father for 10 years, earning up to Rs 12,000 a month. “The daily expense of CNG is about Rs 150, which amounts to about Rs 4,500 per month. About Rs 150 is spent on oil for the auto every 2-3 days. Monthly service of the vehicle amounts to about Rs 1000. This leaves us with a meagre amount to spend on the household expenses,” says Dantani.
He is a member of the Rickshaw Chalak Ekta Union, which was founded just before the first lockdown. He estimates about 4,000-5,000 autorickshaw drivers of a total of about 20,000 in Ahmedabad are part of such unions.
“Most of the members in these unions are private auto owners. Some of them, who work with Ola and Uber are also with the unions. But the unions only take those autorickshaw drivers who have a licence,” he says.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Dantani says that the Union asked its members to attend the Delhi CM’s Monday meeting with auto drivers, following which almost all the members attended it. “I had watched a video of Kejriwal ji, which showed his visit to the house of an autorickshaw driver in Punjab. So, in the meeting, I also invited him over to my house for dinner. And he came,” he says. “Never has any CM or any minister come to our house to visit us and eat in our society. This is Gujarat CM Bhupendra Patel’s constituency, even though he never made any visits to any of our houses in all these years.”
Dantani’s mother, Vasantiben, and three younger brothers, in their early twenties, also live in the same one-bedroom house, that was built by Dantani’s grandfather. He has two sisters, in their late twenties, who are married and live in Ahmedabad district.
Vasantiben complains about how the electricity bill has shot up from Rs 700-1,000 to Rs 2,000, and the cooking gas costs Rs 1,060 a cylinder after the suspension of subsidy.
Their family also prefers a private healthcare facility when they need it. “The government hospital in the area is good but there is too much paperwork and long queues, so we prefer the private hospital,” says Vasantiben. The family has been trying hard to get a house under the PM Awas Yojana (PMAY) but the paperwork has deterred them.
“This house in which we live was made by my father-in-law. He had seven sons. We are living in it, and the families of other siblings live nearby. But now our family is expanding as well. So for the last so many years, I have been trying for a house under the government’s Awaas Yojna at various locations, Ghatlodia, Chandlodiya, Vadaj, etc. But again, the paperwork is so much, and they (government offices) do not entertain us. The process is not easy, we are struggling for the bare minimum,” says Vasantiben, whose husband died nine years ago.
Dantani studied in the government school at Chandlodiya till Class 7, and then went to a private school. “I have thought about working with Ola and Uber, but the problem there is the fixed rates. This is usually less than the rates in our meter card. The rates in the meter card are decided based on the CNG prices, our expenses and so on. The rates were revised last in 2021. The CNG prices have reached till Rs 90 per kg too. We have made several requests to the government to bring CNG prices down, and to increase the ride rates, but still no satisfactory response came from the government’s side.”
Asked whom he would vote for in the upcoming Gujarat elections, given his hosting of dinner for Kejriwal, Dantani says: “I don’t know. There are problems, but let us see what promises the incumbent government makes. If they come up with some schemes or benefits for autorickshaw drivers like us, there is hope. Almost all of us in the neighbourhood have been voting for BJP. It is undecided who should be elected this time to form the government,” adding that “The autorickshaw chalaks at the union are also not clear on this yet. We have a meeting of the union, so it will be decided there.”