After a gap of nearly two months, autorickshaws started plying on the roads of Madurai district on Saturday.
J. Raju, an auto rickshaw driver from Mudakkuchalai, said that he was relieved to resume operations after several weeks. He said that with no source of income for the last two months, it had been very difficult for him to make ends meet for his family. “With the resumption of operations I hope to earn a decent income and start repaying the money I borrowed from money lenders,” he said.
While most autorickshaws followed the norms and travelled with one passenger, a few were seen riding with two or three passengers, with total disregard for physical distancing norms. A few large autorickshaws, used as ‘share autos’, were seen travelling with three passengers.
M. Arogyam, a share autorickshaw driver near Periyar bus stand, said that they were flouting the one-passenger norm as otherwise it was difficult for them to have passengers. “If we have to travel with one customer, then we have to charge higher fares. But most of our passengers are also without any income and would not be able to afford to travel alone,” he said.
Many share autorickshaws drivers have also doubled the fares due to lower passenger footfall. S. Lakshmi, a sanitary worker from Samayanallur, said that she had to spend ₹60 for travelling to her workplace. “Earlier, it would cost only ₹20. With an income of ₹5,000 every month, it will be difficult for me to spend ₹120 for travel everyday. So, I have to keep continuing to walk for eight kilometres to reach my workplace,” she said.
Several drivers complained that though their operations were resumed, they had very few passengers due to the one-person norm. Around 250 drivers affiliated to the Madurai City Autorickshaw Drivers Association also staged a demonstration in front of the District Collectorate, demanding that an additional one person be allowed to ride in autorickshaws.
Against this backdrop, it was not financially viable to buy sanitisers for passengers and disinfect the autorickshaws thrice every day, said S. V. Sekar, another driver. “We tell all our passengers to wear face masks. We also carry soap with us, so that we can wash our hands when we find taps. We also wash our vehicles once in the morning and evening,” he said.
Assistant Commissioner of Police (Traffic) Joseph Nixon said that cases were booked against autorickshaw drivers who flouted the norms. “Only for medical emergencies do we allow an extra passenger to travel in an autorickshaw,” he said.
Low patronage in Virudhunagar
Meanwhile in Virudhunagar, autorickshaw drivers complained that they did not get normal patronage from passengers.
“Only when buses and trains run and people start moving from one town to another, do we get passengers,” said C. Manikandan, a driver, who operates from the autorickshaw stand at the Old Bus stand. While 25 autorickshaws operate from this stand, only five were there in the morning. “We got only two trips today,” he said.
Stating that he had already spent ₹350 to repair the vehicle, he said he was sceptical about whether he would recover even that money. “As the vehicle was idle for 60 days, the battery has drained. And engine oil had to be changed. I have also spent on fuel,” he said.
Another autorickshaw driver, R. Mariselvam, who operates from MGR Statue stand, said that it was highly impractical to operate autorickshaws with only one passenger.
“Most of the people come out to buy things or to go to the hospital. And at least two persons have to be ferried. If we insist that only one passenger can be taken, people would not engage autorickshaws at all,” he said.
Stating that Virudunagar town was dependent on people coming from various nearby villages for all its business, Mr. Mariselvam said that many autorickshaws from villages were seen plying in the town.
When asked about the hand-washing facility, Mr. Mariselvam said that soap has been kept at the stand. “Since we are not allowed to take passengers from other stands, we think a hand washing facility at the stand alone would be helpful. Spending on sanitiser in this lean period will only be an additional expenditure,” he said.
Only those who own autorickshaws were plying them. Others who would rent the vehicles had not begun, fearing that lack of patronage might lead to additional debts, he added.
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