Covid hits Pune auto rickshaw drivers again, many complain of financial and mental stress
Rickshaw drivers in Pune are once again the victims of the Covid-19 pandemic. As in the first and second waves, they feel the heat even during the third wave. In addition to the mental stress, the drivers are facing a financial crisis due to the drop in the number of passengers, which leads to multiple other problems.
“Before the pandemic hit, an auto rickshaw driver carried 10 to 15 passengers a day, which is now down to three or four. The daily profit also halved from Rs 500-600 to Rs 200-300. This poses multiple problems, including managing the household, financing our children’s education, etc. says Baba Kamble, chairman of the Maharashtra Rickshaw Panchayat, a union of rickshaw owners and drivers.
“This led to rickshaw drivers failing to repay loans which subsequently led to financial companies taking legal action against us. In many cases, even our cars were confiscated. These companies are not granting any reprieve given the current situation,” he added.
Ayub Sheikh, a car driver, who has driven the three-wheeler for 25 years, said: “I have an outstanding loan of Rs 80,000 after several lockdowns affected my finances. I took cash 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 an MBA and I am now hesitant whether to allow my daughter to continue her studies after the 12th.”
Sanjay Kale has been suffering from back pain for some time due to his herniated disc. Kale faces problems when he sits for a long time and somehow manages to drive the auto-rickshaw throughout the day. Kale had planned to have surgery this year but had to postpone after the pandemic hit again. “The operation requires Rs 35,000-Rs 40,000 and a drop in my daily income forced me to postpone it for a few months,” he said.
Some rickshaw drivers also face mental health issues and a sudden change in emotions due to reduced activity. Anil Kamble, regretting his aggressive behavior, said: “I get aggressive sometimes when I don’t have enough passengers. Most of the time I’m able to control my emotions, but sometimes I burst out. The first victims are my fellow autowalas and members of my family.
However, the misery of motorists this time is not as severe as that of the second wave. Ashok Salekar, chairman of the Shivneri Rickshaw Union, recalls how he and his union members helped 800-900 motorists with daily rations last year. “Conditions are not extreme like the last wave, but yes motorists are facing challenges,” he said.
Motorists are also complaining about the implementation of the Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 in December last year which increased compound charges for traffic offences.
The fine for violators now ranges from Rs 200 to Rs 1 lakh depending on the offence. The state government believes that strict implementation of the new amendment will ensure better traffic safety and better discipline. Drivers feel that the new fines add an unnecessary financial burden during the painful period.
Another challenge is the operation of taxi companies which have challenged their monopoly and, according to motorists, “have eaten away at their business”.
Rubbing salt on their wound, taxi companies have introduced pedicab services in Pune, further harming reach. Drivers are increasingly concerned about the growing demand for taxi and bicycle taxi services, especially in urban areas.
Earlier in a meeting with Maharashtra Home Minister Dilip Walse Patil, the Maharashtra Rickshaw Panchayat had raised four main demands including Welfare Board for Rickshaw Drivers, Pension old age, an interest-free loan for the purchase of automobiles and financial assistance for their children’s education.
Expressing dismay at the one-time payment of Rs 1,500 by the state government, the union is demanding Rs 5,000 every month on Delhi and Andhra Pradesh lines.
“Auto unions have long argued that the government should guarantee social security given that auto rickshaw drivers contribute over Rs 50,000 to the public treasury at the time of purchase and Rs 15,000 annually title insurance and other payments,” Kamble added. .