In the morning and evening, Vijaylakshmi ferries a gaggle of girl students to school and back. But the rest of the time, she is at the forefront of multiple protests in the fight for women’s rights.

Meet Vijayalakshmi an auto driver and fierce champion for womens issues in Thanjavur
news Human interest Saturday, June 29, 2019 - 15:09

At 49, Vijayalakshmi Manimohan is a tireless fighter. She is not only a woman auto driver in Thanjavur — likely one of very few in the city — but she is also the district secretary for the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW), a front organisation of CPI. When she is not busy shuttling between schools and residences to pick up and drop young girl students, Vijayalakshmi can be found championing women’s issues.

It has been 20 years since Vijayalakshmi started driving an auto rickshaw. Born into an agricultural family in a village near Virudhunagar, she had a difficult childhood. “In places like Virudhunagar, farming even back then was not profitable. My parents could get me educated only till Class 10,” she reminisces. Married to Manimohan at Thirumangalam near Madurai, she moved to Thanjavur in early 1990s since her mother lived there. “I was a single child, you see,” she reasons. 

In 1998, Vijayalakshmi decided to learn how to drive an auto after she came across a news report about five women in Chennai driving autos. “That is when I decided to give it a try,” she said. 

“My family was struggling and I already had three children. My husband was working in a company making brass vessels, but he was not earning much. The thought of not being able to give my children a good education threatened us immensely and I had to look for better livelihood options,” she said. 

Vijayalakshmi had not even driven a two-wheeler before that, but something compelled her to try. She approached male drivers asking them to teach her, and while many complied, the instruction brought its own challenges. 

“I had problems sitting by their side to learn because, in every case, they tried to take advantage of it,” she said. But Vijayalakshmi persisted. Today, she holds a heavy vehicle drivers license as she can effortlessly handle lorries and buses. Though she also attempted to find a government job, she came across insurmountable obstacles. “They wanted a bribe, and I honestly couldn’t afford it. But right now looking back, I think I am happy driving an auto.”

With a family to care for and her active involvement in local affairs, Vijayalakshmi decided to do only school trips, which she makes from 7.30 to 10 am and from 3.30 to 6 pm. “Today I pick up and drop 25 girls at their schools and back. It has almost always been girls. The girls I have ferried to schools are now doctors and engineers, spread across the world. They still keep in touch and invite me to their family functions. My customers have always become like family. The families trust me also because I am actively involved in women’s issues.”

Her own family has also settled down well, in part through Vijayalakshmi’s auto driving work. Her daughter holds a B.A degree and currently pursuing her B.Ed. Both her sons hold diplomas in Engineering. “One of them is in Oman and the other one is getting ready to fly off to Dubai.” she said. 

Her husband, Manimohan, is among a dozen people who learnt how to drive an auto from Vijayalakshmi. He was travelling almost an hour and a half to get to his previous work, which was becoming increasingly difficult. Vijayalakshmi realised it would be more practical if her husband drove an auto instead. “Also, it was definitely bringing us more money.”

The rest of the people she taught were all women. “I also helped some of them get loans to buy autos.”

Two years after she started driving an auto, Vijayalakshmi joined the All India Trade Union Congress (AITUC) through which she found her way to NFIW. “Somehow, women’s issues have always been close to my heart. A newspaper report on women driving autos inspired me to try it. Women are intrinsically fearless, but they are moulded by the society that they live in. When they follow their gut, they can discover a whole new world, just like I did.”

In her second term as the district secretary for NFIW, Vijayalakshmi has stood at the forefront of many issues. From Nirbhaya to Pollachi, she has led multiple protests against crimes on women. There have been protests against TASMAC shops and against a bus fare hike. NFIW in Thanjavur also led a protest during Gaja cyclone, and finally managed to get relief for at least 250 affected families. “Women constantly approach us with complaints about harassment or simply to seek advice on livelihood options. Our doors are always open for them. When they see me as an example, as an inspiration in a small way, I feel my life is fully lived.”

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