Women auto-rickshaw drivers struggle to make ends meet during post-lockdown period

Auto-drivers hailed as warriors during the lockdown period continue to suffer from a dearth of adequate wages, lack of family support

Women auto-rickshaw drivers
Representation Image

The past few months have been peppered with news articles regarding the public transport sector’s help in providing emergency rides during the lockdown period. Auto drivers, especially women drivers in metropolitan cities like Thane and Chennai, have been hailed for offering transport service to essential-service-workers and for medical emergencies while dealing with their own financial and social problems.

Women auto rickshaw drivers such as Raji and Parameswary from Chennai have been celebrated in newspapers like The Hindu for their social services.

However, while conversing with SabrangIndia, the two drivers said that their financial burden had started to weigh down on them following the end of the supposed lockdown period. Both the women have failed to pay their house-rent for the last five months.

Prior to the lockdown, Raji earned a monthly salary of Rs. 20,000 – 25,000, driving regular customers in the city. Similarly, Parameswary who worked at the CMBT bus stand earned Rs. 30,000 each month. However, since the beginning of the lockdown period, both have been hard-pressed to earn a daily wage of Rs. 200-300.

The situation is particularly bad for Parameswary who has no regular customers because most of her customers are foreigners who come from Mumbai, Dubai. Singapore and Canada. Once the government shut down the inter-state transport services, her earnings were reduced to zero. Even her ‘ladies special’ services from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. near the same bus stand offer no profits. The two drivers have nowhere to express their grievances as there is no separate women’s union in Chennai.

Even so, they receive help and ration from their family members and receive Rs. 5,000 every month from the government after much request.

“My family members who work in shops offer help from time to time so for now I am okay,” said Parameswary. Grateful for the help they receive, the two women help out with emergency services like transporting food and other necessities to the elderly in the city or similar work.

For her and Raji, the problems centre around their wages. However, other women have to deal with family pressure as well.

Unlike the two women in Chennai, Rekha Ghadge, an auto-rickshaw driver in Thane, did not receive her family’s support when she participated in a ‘rickshaw-on-demand’ service started by the City’s Regional Transport Office. Rekha spent a good part of April, May and June transporting pregnant ladies to hospitals. Her family worried that she would have to work in close contact with infected people but she continued with the emergency rides nonetheless.

“At the end of the day, we have to help each other out in times of trouble so I just continue with the work regardless of my family’s warnings,” Rekha told SabrangIndia.

As with all the drivers, Rekha’s daily wages plummeted after the Covid-19 lockdown. At the same time, she received a growing number of calls from her bank for the monthly payment of her autorickshaw.

“I have to pay around Rs. 5,000 per month to the bank. But nowadays I am hardly able to earn a daily wage of Rs. 200. The problem is that once I drop someone at say Ghodbunder, I do not get a passenger while coming back,” said Rekha.

She suspected that the main source of this problem was the lack of railway transport. Currently, railway facilities are unavailable in containment areas like Thane except for essential service workers.

When asked about the condition of women drivers, Rekha said the juggle between professional work and domestic work had become taxing in the last few months.

“I start my work at 10 AM and then return home after 5 PM to start with my house work. We receive rations from NGOs but the government hasn’t offered any help as of yet. We haven’t received the government subsidies either,” she said wishing that share-auto rickshaws would be allowed again.

For now, Rekha shares her earnings with a small group of fellow women drivers.

Meanwhile, the gender discrimination is much more severe in other areas of the city like Kapurbawadi.

Kalpana Reddy told SabrangIndia that she is among the four women drivers working at the Kapurbawadi auto-stand. Everyday her work begins from 8 AM and so do her struggles as she fights for a place to park her vehicle in the auto-rickshaw line.

“The people here argue that drivers who live in Kapurbawadi should be the first in line. As a result, we women who live in other areas have to stand somewhere far behind in the line,” she said.

Prior to coronavirus, Kalpana was not worried about her place in the line. However, such arguments became heated after the lockdown period.

Last week, Kalpana had to call the police after the other drivers allegedly punctured her vehicle. The officials warned the drivers but this seemed to agitate them further.

“I was threatened of physical assault after that incident. The police and RTO officers are very supportive of us women drivers, even the passengers. However, when you receive such abuse in your workplace, who will want to work,” she asked.

Kalpana soon fell sick after the incident so she had to rest a few days. Her husband who is also a rickshaw driver supports her work and had encouraged her to approach the police after the puncturing incident.

However, other family workers have asked Kalpana to quit her job after the recent threats. Her sister and her daughters fear for her life.

“I like driving. I even helped out with the medical emergency rides but working under the current condition is horrible for me,” she said.



Lockdown through the gender lens




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