After a gap of nearly two months, autorickshaws began plying on Madurai roads on Saturday. Though, this relaxation did not extend to areas within the containment zones.
J. Raju, an autorickshaw driver from Mudakkuchalai, said that he was relieved to resume operations after several weeks. With resumption of operations I hope to earn a decent income and start repaying the money I borrowed from money lenders, he said.
While most of the autorickshaws followed the norms and travelled with one passenger, a few autorickshaws were seen carrying two or three passengers, with total disregard to personal distancing norms.
M. Arogyam, a autorickshaw driver near Periyar bus stand, said most were flouting the one-passenger norm as otherwise it was difficult for them to get passengers. If we have to travel with one customer, then we have to charge higher fares. But, most of them are without any income and they cannot afford to travel alone, he said.
But, many autorickshaw drivers had doubled the fares due to low passenger footfall. S. Lakshmi, a sanitary worker from Samayanallur, said that she had to spend 60 for travelling to her workplace. Earlier, it would cost only 20. With an income of Rs. 5,000 every month, it will be difficult for me to spend 120 for travel everyday. So, I have tocontinue walking eight kilometres to reach my workplace, she said.
Around 250 drivers affiliated to Madurai City Autorickshaw Drivers Association also staged a demonstration in front of the Collectorate demanding that additional one person be allowed to ride in autorickshaws.
In this backdrop, it was not financially viable to buy sanitisers for passengers and disinfect the autorickshaws thrice everyday, said S. V. Sekar, another driver. We tell all our passengers to wear face masks. We also carry soap with us, so that we can wash our hands when we find taps. We wash our vehicles once in the morning and evening, he added.
Assistant Commissioner (traffic) Joseph Nixon said that cases were booked against auto rickshaw drivers who flouted the norms. Only for a medical emergency, we allow an extra passenger to travel in an autorickshaw, he said.
The restriction imposed by the State government on the number of passengers to be carried in an autorickshaw has affected the drivers.
The drivers feel that the restriction was impractical and they support other precautionary measures to be ensured while taking passengers like use of hand sanitiser and spraying disinfectants after every trip.
We cannot take two passengers, even a couple, as per the restriction. This is unfair, says driver Mani, who has stationed his vehicle near Palayamkottai bus stand. Though a few autorickshaws could be seen with two or three passengers in interior roads, others, fearing action from the authorities, were seen waiting for a lone passenger.
Drivers also demand that buses and trains should be operated immediately. Most of the passengers take autorickshaws from interior areas to reach the nearest bus stop or the bus stand. Since, public transport system is yet to resume, most of the autorickshaws are idle, says driver Mariappan of Palayamkottai.
Similar situation prevailed in Tenkasi and Thoothukudi districts as only a few autorickshaws could be seen on the road.
When a few drivers operated the autorickshaws in Thoothukudi before permission was granted, Collector Sandeep Nanduri had detained three autorickshaws and slapped fine on them. Fearing such a measure, most of us desisted from flouting the rule and have been waiting indefinitely for a single passenger, said a driver from Poobalarayarpuram.