Riders who write stories of resilience
Unemployed, educated, uneducated, divorced, and widowed — all these labels become one under Veerapengal.
CHENNAI: An autorickshaw ride, all around Chennai with old Ilaiyaraaja classics playing in the background, was the perfect idea of a solo date for me. But when Chandrika, who has been riding an autorickshaw offered me a ride, it was much more than what I had imagined. Through our one-hour ride, she gave an invitation into the tales of resilience she and other members of Veerapengal, an institution that empowers women to become autorickshaw drivers write through their everyday struggles.
Navigating through life
Chandrika’s day starts at 7 am. From her home, Kattankulathur, she has regular drops, one to Ramakrishna high school, Tambaram, and other to LIC. She then tours around Egmore, Chennai Central, and Parrys during the day, and Adyar, Alandur, and Pallavaram at night.
Having always dreamt about being a driver and clearing the license test in 2005, she wanted to own a vehicle of her own. “I knew how to ride two and four-wheelers. I always wanted to become a cab driver,” she says. In 2020, when she had to support her family struggling in a financial crisis, with the help of a relative she bought an autorickshaw and learnt driving in three days. It was after six months she came to know about Veerapengal through Devi from Medavakkam.
The institution works towards building a women-driven community, wherein, women needn’t just work with different flavours in the kitchen, but come out and be their bosses. Since Chandrika joined the team, she also focused on inspiring more women to take up her profession.
Empowering each other
Started with 50 women in Nanganallur, five years ago, the organisation extends its roots to different districts of Tamil Nadu. With 400 members in Chennai and 300 members in Coimbatore, the community stays strong. “Women drivers should be themselves, they should be in the front seat to navigate, accelerate, and apply brakes only when there is any bump on the way” shares Mohana, organiser, Veerapengal. The institution collaborates with NGOs and serves its members.
“The recently-launched scheme where Stalin ayya gives ‘1 lakh for women to buy autos has helped us rope in more women and help them get settled,” says Mohana. The members celebrate festivals together, and offer free-of-cost food at their gatherings.
Unemployed, educated, uneducated, divorced, and widowed — all these labels become one under Veerapengal. Chandrika herself is a mother of two and has her daily personal struggles along with the hardships at her job. Despite the hurdles, she and her team focus on spreading humanity. Recalling an incident where she had to ferry a passenger in an inebriated state, she says, “I dropped him off at his home. He was not in the condition to pull out his wallet and pay. I called his home, helped them take him inside, and left the place without any money.” As for Chandrika every person should reach home safely and should sleep peacefully is the main goal.
From helping them to acquire licenses and vehicles, designating autorickshaw stands to enrolling them on ride-hailing applications, the team helps to build a driver out of any aspiring woman. “For the last 25 years, women have been riding autos across the city. Initially, they were restricted to riding only in a selected area the whole day. It was only men who drove around the city, taking different routes. Now with technology and other developments, women can also take different routes,” says Mohana.
Different treatment from their male counterparts and stereotypical stares from people didn’t deteriorate the spirit of Chandrika and her team at Veerapengal. They continue to break the glass ceiling. “I am never afraid of anybody, you can’t reach heights or prove yourself if you are constantly living in fear,” says Chandrika. Even though the progress is slow, it is definitely happening and with drivers like Chandrika, a lot of women shed their hesitancy to take up such jobs and inspire others.