It is well past eight in the morning – much later than Nagaraj usually gets going. Normally, the 45-year-old autorickshaw driver would have set out for an early airport or train station run hours ago. “My day begins as early as 6 o’ clock,” he says. “Before heading out to work, I finish my household chores and prayers and drop my daughter at school.”
The vehicle he’s using to drop off his daughter and shuttle customers to their destinations is called, simply, an “auto” by most of Chennai’s commuters, and a simple machine it is indeed. The ubiquitous three-wheeled yellow pods move countless people through this crowded city every day. But as Nagaraj’s relatively sophisticated operation illustrates, the business of auto driving is more orchestrated than it first appears.
Nagaraj lives in 450-square-foot, 1 BHK (bedroom, hall and kitchen apartment) in the Taramani section of Chennai with his wife and two daughters. “My daughter has just got a job opportunity with Asiana Hotel in Chennai as a team leader. She will complete her hotel management studies in April and commence work in May,” he announces proudly. As he finishes his breakfast, Nagaraj’s wife packs him a small container of juice and fruits for his journey. “I come home for lunch,” he smiles, gulping down a glass of buttermilk.
Officially, Chennai’s autos are unregulated with no set routes or schedules. But in reality, the system is self-organized by its drivers who create their own methods for maximizing profit. With his day set to begin, Nagaraj takes out his phone and fiddles with it for some time. Seeing the curious look on my face, he smiles and says, “They are my contacts, madam. I maintain a to-do list so that I know where I have to be at what time.”
Fluent in both English and Tamil, Nagaraj can also converse in Hindi, a rarity among the city’s auto drivers. Born and raised in Chennai, three generations of his family have lived in this city. “I have seen this city grow from Madras to Chennai,” he says.
A typically wild auto ride through the streets of Chennai. “He’s the king of the road,” declare the driver’s passengers. Video by Sashi C Loco via YouTube.
After dropping out of school in Class 10, Nagaraj, then 18, went to Kolkata and started working as a supervisor in a tile manufacturing company. Overseeing the work there for a few months along with his relatives, he was later transferred from one city to another before landing in Chennai again to be with his family. “I joined a factory here as a commercial assistant. I used to get Rs5,000 to Rs5,500 (about $92 to $102 USD, per month) as salary,” he says. He now makes about Rs15,000 a month driving his three-wheeler.
It was his zeal to work independently that made him buy an auto in 1999. “I wanted to be independent of any owner or boss. What better could I have asked for than driving my own auto?” As we whirl past the traffic in his tiny vehicle, Nagaraj shows me the daily route he takes to pick up his regular commuters. “Since I have to pick up school children in the afternoon, I try to wrap up roaming around the city in the morning before 2 p.m., taking on board commuters that come my way,” he says.
After an hour-long lunch break at home, he gears up for his evening shift, which starts at 4 p.m. “I have a customer in Mylapore, whom I pick up and drop every day to her dance classes in Egmore, which is in Central Chennai,” he says, adding that apart from his day-to-day commuters, he has a fixed schedule for his long-term customers. Ever organized, he calls all of his customers before reaching their homes to confirm their pickups.
“You will not find every other auto driver with a working list,” he says. “However, I have a couple of friends who I have taught to maintain a list for themselves.” An intricately sculpted schedule allows auto drivers to make sure they have a fare-paying passenger at virtually every moment. “I make a note every morning in my small note pad and keep it with me throughout the day. My customer calls me an hour before they need me to be at their home,” says another fellow auto driver, Nandhanasamy, who looks significantly older than his 38 years.
Because of the constantly changing price of diesel and petrol, Nadhanasamy keeps track of the passengers who commute in his auto regularly so he’ll know what to charge who with a minimum of haggling. “My customers feel comfortable traveling with me because they do not have to bargain for a price every day,” he says. “Instead, it is a fixed price that they pay me for the distance traveled every day.” Asked whether he prefers carrying regular customers or random passengers from the street, Nadhanasamy says it’s all the same to him. “Whatever comes my way first. As far as I get to earn well, I will take on board any traveler.”
Finishing dinner with his family and discussing his day at work, Nagaraj glances at his schedule for the next day: a 4 a.m. airport drop-off for one of his oldest customers, before which he’ll have time for only a few hours sleep.