The lockdown imposed to contain the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic has sent livelihoods of autorickshaw drivers for a toss. Apart from a loss of income, the ambiguity on permitting autos for essential services has put them under untold hardships.
The government has mandated the possession an of e-pass for auto rickshaws, a decision which remains a hurdle for operation during emergencies. Law enforcing authorities are reportedly levying hefty fines for operating autos during medical emergencies and for agricultural requirements.
Increasing prices of fuel and essential commodities amidst the pandemic has hit the livelihoods of daily-wage earners.
The autorickshaw drivers held a state-wide protest on June 10 demanding a cash relief of Rs 7,500 for the lockdown period and an extension till December on loans, insurance and licence renewals.
EXEMPT MANDATORY E-PASS REGISTRATION
The government of Tamil Nadu imposed a total lockdown across the state from May 10, which now has several relaxations in districts with low COVID-19 cases. Auto rickshaws, which are a lifeline in rural and semi-urban areas, were mandated to possess an e-pass for transporting people.
“Obtaining e-pass for autos and passengers during an emergency is impractical, leading to a lot of confusion. Lack of smartphones and internet facilities remain a hurdle for the poor to obtain the mandatory e-pass, an idea which needs severe rethinking by the government,” said Balasubramaniam, working president of the Tamil Nadu Auto Rickshaw Workers Federation.
The uncertainty over the exemption given to vehicles from essential services has created confusion over free movement of auto rickshaws across the state.
“There is no specific regulation for the operation of autos in the state. Several auto drivers are being fined for transporting passengers to hospitals and railway stations, particularly in Tirunelveli district. When contacted higher officials are denying any such directions being given to levy penalties, but on the ground, police officials are giving a tough time to the poor auto workers,” said Murugan, general secretary of Tirunelveli District Auto Workers Federation.
PROVIDE RELIEF FOR LICENCE HOLDERS
The lockdown has left workers with very less to spare; that is also being snatched away in the name of penalties for want of e-passes. The auto workers federation affiliated to the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) demanded a cash relief of Rs 7,500 for the auto owners and drivers who number more than 3.2 lakhs across the state.
“During the lockdown last year, the previous government announced a cash relief of Rs 3,000 to auto drivers registered with the welfare boards who were active and had renewed their membership. Of the 3,20,000 auto rickshaws registered across the state, only 25,000 were registered with the board and just 15,000 were active,” said Balasubramaniam, elaborating on the sorry state of affairs.
Given the paltry number of beneficiaries, CITU has demanded that relief be distributed through regional transport offices (RTO), which has the exact number of active auto rickshaws and the details of licence and badge holders.
The department of statistics, in its 2019 handbook, had pegged the number of auto rickshaws at 2,59,883 during 2017-18.
“The welfare board has sufficient funds with more than Rs 450 crore available now. Every single auto owner has contributed to this, irrespective of whether they were registered with the board or not. From the purchase of auto rickshaws and tyres to licence and badges, the board receives a percentage from the payments made. So, not even a single auto rickshaw driver should not be exempted from relief,” demanded Balasubramaniam.
‘NO RELIEF ANNOUNCED SO FAR’
The government of Tamil Nadu announced cash relief for temple priests without monthly wages after the lockdown was imposed.
“The auto rickshaw drivers fall under the same category and no relief has been announced so far by the DMK government,” said Balasaubramaniam.
The central trade unions have been demanding Rs 7,500 cash relief for workers not covered under ESI and PF schemes.
“The DMK was a staunch supporter of the demand for cash relief and it had promised the same in their election manifesto as well. Due to lack of proper relief during the first wave more than 100 auto rickshaw drivers ended their lives. The government should be proactive to ensure such tragedies do not occur again,” Balasubramaniam said.
Increasing fuel prices despite the raging pandemic has also hit the sector hard.
“Fuel prices and the tax on petroleum products are hitting us hard. We are paying a large amount of taxes everyday since we consume petroleum products in high quantities.The policies of the BJP government are a major reason for our suffering,” claimed Balasubramaniam.
The federation has also demanded that the state government extends the validity of taxes since vehicles were not permitted during the lockdown.
“Our expenses are increasing due to high prices of essential commodities. We are paying exorbitant high tax for petrol and diesel. But, the union government is turning a blind eye to the common man by failing to contain prices,” said Balasubramaniam.
The CITU has also demanded for the extension of licence validity, EMI and insurance payment till December 2021, given the COVID-19 lockdown.