Published: 07th March 2020
Everyday Sheroes: Chennai auto driver PV Raji Ashok offers free rides, sanitary napkin and driving lessons to women
In our run-up to Int'l Women's Day 2020, we have curated this series of stories of women who aren't extraordinary — but our world may just stop going around smoothly if they decided to call it a day
Next time you're walking through the streets of Chennai, alone at night, and happen to see an auto rickshaw with a board that says 'Free Ride', don't be bewildered. If you're a woman or are a bit elderly, this rickshaw will stop to pick you up and drop you home. Uber rickshaw driver PV Raji Ashok, popularly known as Raji Akka, has been doing this for years now.
And that's not all. Every morning, she offers free rides to girl students of government schools in her neighbourhood, en route to the city. Packets of biscuit and bottles of water are stocked up in the rickshaw and she'll hand it to anyone who's in need of it. "From this Women's Day, I have started stocking up on a few basic medicines and sanitary napkins too. These aren't exclusive to my passengers. You never know when a woman needs it," says the 48-year-old.
I took up the job because this was my only way of survival. I love it when people say nice things about me on the app
A BSc graduate, Raji's been driving an Uber auto rickshaw since 2014, a month after the company was launched in Chennai. "I started driving auto rickshaws because that was the only means I could find to survive. I used to drive a rickshaw at an auto stand previously, but I had to pay a hefty amount to the association. My husband is a rickshaw driver too. Before Uber, I worked with another ride provider, which did not work out quite well for me," she says. Raji admits that she was initially quite scared about going to areas like North Chennai. "But that's an old story," she says. "I've slowly gotten to understand how safe my city is for everyone," she says.
Raji recalls instances where the passengers would get surprised seeing a woman in the driver's seat. "They would look twice," she laughs. "But at the same time, most women find it really safe to ride with me," she adds. But it's not just the women. Upon opening Raji's driver profile in the Uber app, one would know how impressed the people of Chennai are with her. "Thank you Akka, you were very humble," reads a comment. "Very happy to see a woman driver. It was a wonderful experience," reads another. Now, do not be surprised to know that she has a rating of 4.9 stars. "These compliments make me happy and motivated. I always greet the passengers with a 'Good morning' and say 'Have a nice day' when they get off," she says.
It would be utopic and unrealistic to believe that no passenger has misbehaved with Raji. She says, "Previously, Uber would let the driver and passenger access each other's mobile numbers. There were instances where people have called me up at 1 and 2 at night." However, the app now lets the passenger call a direct Uber number. "This doesn't happen anymore. I hardly have any complaints now," she says.
Offering free rides, by the way, isn't Raji's only USP. Every weekend, she teaches the local womenfolk how to drive, free of cost too. "I teach them how to drive in my own rickshaw. I don't even collect the money for fuel. The only condition is that they must come to my house," she says. Now, what's the next big thing for Raji Akka, we wonder. She says loudly, "I want to be the best auto rickshaw driver in the world."
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