Transwomen drive change – Chennai's empowered auto drivers

This new chapter in their lives unfolded a month ago when the state government facilitated their formal entry into being auto drivers with a substantial Rs 1 lakh subsidy.
Autorickshaw driver P Sandhiya on duty near Jafferkhanpet, Chennai. (Photo | Ashwin Prasath, EPS)
Autorickshaw driver P Sandhiya on duty near Jafferkhanpet, Chennai. (Photo | Ashwin Prasath, EPS)

CHENNAI:  When R Sarala and P Sandhiya bravely embraced their identities as transwomen over two decades ago, little did they anticipate the societal contempt that would follow, both from their families and the wider society. Driven by sheer will, Sandhiya and Sarala now cut through busy city streets as independent autorickshaw drivers, backed by encouraging words from a supportive clientele.

This new chapter in their lives unfolded a month ago when the state government facilitated their formal entry into being auto drivers with a substantial Rs 1 lakh subsidy. “I have enlisted with two app-based cab services and drive the auto throughout the day. People treat me respectfully and share encouraging words. Even though I had earned before, I am happy and content now,” says Sarala.

Originally from Vellore, Sarala relocated to Chennai in her early 20s. “My cousin used to mock me when I was around 10 before I could even comprehend being a transwoman. My classmates used to tease me in school too, due to which I dropped out after Class 8. I was shunned at my job as well, I was worried the only way I could make a living would be to beg,” she says, further adding, “But then, I chose to follow my instincts and transitioned into womanhood despite facing a lot of harassment.”

Sarala went on to live with the transgender community in Chennai and later at a hostel in Chetpet. Sarala now earns around Rs 20,000 per month after covering the expenses for the autorickshaw and uses the extra cash to help her peers and those in need. Although she maintains contact with her mother over the phone, other members of her family have yet to accept her.

Fellow transwoman and auto driver, Sandhiya, born in Chennai, has dedicated over two decades of her life to social work. She came out in her early 20s and successfully persuaded her mother to accept.

“Transgender rights activist Kalki Subramaniam and other friends pushed me towards social work. I began filming videos, produced an award-winning short film, ‘Odukkapatta Aanmakkal,’ on elderly people, and participated in dramas under the guidance of Mu Ramasamy, a theatre artist and actor,” Sandhiya says.

Currently residing with her mother, Sandhiya says she has limitations in being an auto driver due to her social work commitments. However, she plans to become a full-time driver from next month.

“There has been an increase in awareness regarding the transgender community since I came out 20 years ago. While some auto drivers do not take this well, as they fear it would negatively impact their trade, most customers support me. This shift in social attitude is a welcome change,” she adds.

Sarala and Sandhiya have only one thing to ask, for the government to foster transpersons’ financial independence. They believe the step could improve many lives and pave the way for a broader social transformation.

(Edited by Ajay UK)

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