Jamal KP ended his decades-long expatriate life in Saudi Arabia two years ago with the hope to start a business in his native Kozhikode. After trying out a few businesses, he decided to buy an electric auto-rickshaw. He took the decision seeing Kerala government’s promotion of its e-auto initiative, where it promised to provide subsidy to those who buy the white and blue e-auto, Neem-G.
Two months ago, he bought the three-wheeler for about Rs 2.8 lakh, and with that came the next hurdle. “Whenever I went to the auto stand in the city to park my vehicle, the other auto drivers there would stop me, push and shout at me, and never allowed me to take customers. On other instances, I was never allowed to pick or drop passengers from railway stations, bus stands or from any prime spots of the city. A few times, they blocked my vehicle and asked passengers to get out," Jamal alleged.
Ever since he bought the e-auto, he has not been able to earn an income out of it. According to Jamal, people are apprehensive about hiring an e-auto as other auto drivers would stop the vehicle and allegedly assault the passengers.
There are more than 100 e-auto drivers in Kozhikode district alone, who face similar issues in the city, as well as the rural areas. Many of them have taken loans from banks to buy the vehicle and are struggling to pay them off due to no rides.
"Since we cannot park the vehicle anywhere, we go around the city in search of rides. Once charged completely, the vehicle will run only for about 115 to 120 kilometres. Once the battery drains out, we have to go home, charge it for another four hours,” Prakash, who runs an electric auto in Koyilandy, told TNM.
Prakash said that a few e-auto drivers in Kozhikode met the District Collector last week, who then called the petrol and diesel auto drivers for a compromise meeting. After the meeting, it was decided that the e-auto drivers would be allotted two spots in an abandoned area to park their vehicles.
"But soon, we realised that there are no people in these spots. How will we get customers? It has been a few months since I bought the vehicle. Till now, we haven't made any profit from it," he added.
Recommending eco-friendly vehicles, the Kerala government had largely promoted e-auto services in the state. It was in July 2019 that Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had inaugurated the commercial-scale production of Kerala’s own ‘Neem-G’. It was manufactured by Kerala Automobiles Limited’s (KAL), a public sector establishment. Inaugurating it, CM had said Kerala will be a land of electric vehicles soon. It would cost the e-auto owners 50 paise per kilometer.
“The government promoted it significantly. But now, we are not able to operate them. We have given complaints to the police, Regional Transport Office (RTO), the Collector, Corporation and other officials. We need to work here without fear. The government should make sure that our complaints are heard. We are only asking for a better working condition,” said Jamal.
The auto drivers are also planning to move the Kerala High Court, highlighting that other authorities are not helping them resolve the issues.
Diesel and petrol auto drivers, on the other hand, told TNM that they oppose e-auto services as they fear more people are taking up the profession, and, in turn, affecting their fair share of profit.
“We are not against e-auto services,” said an auto driver, who did not want to be named. They demand that there should be restrictions in providing licences to new auto-rickshaws. “We have been running here for the last several years. Now, we are losing our job because there are many autos on the road. If the government is promoting electronic vehicles, people will enter this profession and we will eventually be jobless. So the motor vehicle department should limit the number of permits," he said.