For several years after he lost the use of his legs at the age of 19, Balaji thought he had hit rock bottom because he could not find work that made him feel independent. “I tried doing a corporate job but I was so unhappy. I would be dejected and cry all day,” 34-year-old Balaji says. But on January 7 last year, all that changed.
“I used to drop my yoga teacher home after the class every day. One day he asked me why I didn’t drop others like this and ask for a fare. The idea stuck with me,” says Balaji. And with that, ‘Maa Ula’ was born.
Maa Ula is a Chennai-based bike-taxi service run completely by differently-abled persons. Initially, Balaji was the service provider, but he was soon approached by Mohammad Gadaffi, the co-founder who christened the service and was instrumental in encouraging others to join.
‘Maa’ is for ‘maatru thirunaaligal’ meaning ‘differently abled’ in Tamil; and ‘ula’ translates to ‘journey’. Quite aptly, Balaji says that the name translates to ‘a journey with the differently-abled’.
So far, they have five people in their fleet, all of who have their own bikes. But only Balaji and Gadaffi do this full time, the other three are part time drivers. They operate out of Mylapore, Chennai Central, Parrys, Mint Street Sowcarpet and Beach Station.
While they all have regular customers now, getting new ones is still tough. Balaji says that when he approaches customers on his bike by asking them if he could drop them for a fee, they regard him with suspicion.
Further, for the first two kilometres, they charge Rs 25 and Rs 10 per kilometre above that. Night charges are Rs 15 per kilometer, but the base fare remains the same.
Balaji insists says their USP is their concept. “People are opening up to riding with the differently abled. And for my regular customers, I reduce the fare to Rs 8 per kilometer,” he says. He makes around Rs 850 a day from which Rs 150 goes towards fuel. His highest earnings in a day have been Rs 1,300.
“I hand over everything I make to my mother,” Balaji says. After he started the bike taxi service, his parents are much happier. “Earlier they would constantly worry about my future, my happiness. Now they look at me and they know I’ll take care of myself,” he adds.
Balaji and Gadaffi want to increase their fleet to 20-25 people by next January. “My life changed after I began doing this. I am much more comfortable with myself. I want to make others like me feel this way too,” says Balaji.
From the time when Balaji would feel like a beggar looking for customers to looking forward to his preferred night shift as a bike taxi driver, Balaji has come a long way. “I tried doing a corporate job but the mercy and pity with which they treated me, stung. Here, I am my own boss.”