CHENNAI: On March 22, as the country went into a lockdown, auto driver D Arul Raj’s life completely turned upside down. His income fell from Rs 15,000 a month to zero. His family has been struggling to even eat three meals a day. “In the initial 10 days, I was actually happy thinking that I got some rest. But as the days passed, fear started gripping me. Fifteen days later, we had no money left,” said Arul who is a sole breadwinner for his six-member family including his children, wife and parents.
Towards the end of March, Arul tried sneaking out in his auto in a bid to make quick money. However, it brought more misery, as he was caught by the police and had to pay a fine. “We first used up all our savings. Then sold gold ornaments and later sold even little things from our house. By July 1, we had nothing to sell and no income. A few good Samaritans bought us rice, dal and oil with which we survived two weeks,” the 35-year-old said.
While the State had by then permitted to drive autos, much to Arul’s dismay, there was no demand at all. As against the usual income of about Rs 13,000-15,000 per month, he was only earning a maximum of `150 per day. “That’s when I decided that I must do something. Taking a relative’s help, I bought some fish and tried selling it from the auto in my locality (Perambur),” he said.
Since there was not much visibility, Arul had to choose a footpath. “The most heartbreaking part was making my mother sit on the footpath to sell fish. People glance and do not even talk in respectable manner. What made things worse was that a cop took my mother to the station since we were operating without permission on the footpath. We had to withdraw that idea as well,” Arul said as he broke into tears.
Arul now goes from street to street selling fish in his auto. He says the family eats depending on how much he earns that day. He is not eligible for the government aid to auto drivers too because he is not part of any association. “I earned Rs 300 today, and this means we can have a decent meal. But I have four months’ loan due for my auto and I have not paid my son’s school fee yet,” he said.
‘Living in uncertainty’
There are 2,85,000 autos in Tamil Nadu. However, the Rs 2,000 aid offered by the government has only reached 7,000-odd drivers, rues Arul Raj. Most of them have been living in uncertainty ever since the lockdown began