A Life of Service and Satisfaction: Gopalan and His Kannan

Estimated read time 10 min read

How long have you been driving an auto rickshaw?

I have been in the field for 28 years, since 1995. I went to the Gulf in between for two and half years and came back. I ride mainly in Pulamanthol and Kattuppara (places in Kerala).

What is the difference you feel from the beginning of your career to now, in the driving culture, traffic rules, roads, and vehicle technology?

Back in those times, the roads were not as good as today. Now, it’s better. But, the number of vehicles has increased drastically today. In the 90s and 2000s, there were not this much of vehicles. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a home without a car or bike. We need to adapt to changes. When I started driving, only 7 to 10 auto rickshaws were there at our stand. Now it’s 80 to 90. Still, it doesn’t affect much on the trips or the amount we get on a day. Everyone will get their decent share for a living. It’s been almost the same now and then. When I started, the minimum charge was mainly 5, now it’s 30. The petrol charge was under20 per litre. This field is not just for money making. This is a service and every auto driver should be a servant of the society who would always desire the well-being of the people. It is an opportunity to get connected with a lot of individuals and be of service to them.

Could you share one experience that you would never forget in your career?

Once, I went on a trip with one of my neighbors to Karinkallathani. He was a bit old man. He went to a house and they were talking over there. Suddenly, he fainted. His blood pressure went up. There was no one to help him and I quickly had to take him to the hospital. He was saved because I was fortunate to lend a helping hand to him at the right time. That’s an unforgettable experience.

How do you see the evolution of commercial vehicle technology over time?

I started in a petrol auto rickshaw. Petrol vehicles were really smooth. Then the diesel engine came and it went fine. It had that bullet-like sound. I was the first to take a diesel auto in my village. There was a huge difference between petrol and diesel charges at that time. So, the diesel vehicle was very economical. Now, it’s the era of electricity and gas. No matter what, if it’s a new vehicle and you are ready to give a bit of attention to it, it will run smoothly for 4-5 years.

How is the service?

Service charge is free for two years at the service centre. But we don’t usually do that as it may take one or two days of work. It must have to be done at the cost of one or two days of our labour. So we do the maintenance work at the workshop. It will only cost a small amount and can save a lot of time for us.


The primary thing is an oil check. It must be checked frequently. I generally do not use an auto rickshaw for more than 5 years. If it has passed 5 years, some sort of maintenance work will come often. So it’s better to change the vehicle after
5 years.

Any other challenging experience you wish to share with our readers?

When I was returning from Thootha with passengers, I heard a loud sound from a gas lorry in front of us. A bike was struck into it and the lorry just dragged the bike a few metres ahead. The bike riders had their hands cut and wounded. Most people were not ready to help them fearing any unfavourable consequences. Me and some others got ready to help and took them into a Tata Sumo to carry them to Moulana Hospital. In the end, just imagine, If something like this happens to our children, we will surely care for them, right? That’s the same way we auto drivers think. Another sad incident I remember is the accident that happened at Kattuppara. A two-wheeler got into an accident and we tried to rescue him. Very unfortunate, he lost his life on my lap. That was a devastating moment. We often have to face such dreary situations.
The auto drivers are the AI cameras of a town or village. They will know every corner of the city, they will know every people and they also will be able to identify the strangers that come to a place.

How is the camaraderie between other drivers?

There is great unity between us. We often do many services and charity works for the people like organising blood donation camps and fundraising for the needy. We provide a helping hand to many people who are suffering from health issues. We have donated a day’s income to patients who are doing kidney transplantation. We were able to collect 50 to75,000 a day. That’s what I said earlier, it’s a profession where you can contribute a lot to people’s lives. Everyone who is working in the field should think that it’s not only a way to earn money but a way to serve society.
One positive thing we often say is that we or our families don’t have to starve as we will get to buy 1kg of rice if we can go on a local trip.

How about the people who are new to the profession?

We always welcome anyone who’s making a debut in the field. We will share a part of our food and labour with them. There will be disputes happening at many places regarding newly entered as they must never be permitted to run. But I am against such disputes. Because, no one here runs with an auto to become a millionaire. Everyone is struggling to make a living out of it, to meet both ends and to serve food for their families. We feel we must be empathetic as we all share a similar story. We must receive them with both hands.

Many people have a negative concept in mind about auto rickshaw drivers. You also might have heard the common saying, “You should always be careful of the two-wheeler and auto rickshaw drivers. How do you deal with that notion?

Not only in the driving community, but people who create trouble are everywhere. One thing is that auto drivers have to run for 30 minimum charge. They have to run quite a good distance to obtain the amount for daily living. Another thing is that the auto should be turned a bit to see the backside clearly on the mirror. So, other people will naturally misunderstand that we are to turn the auto fully when we actually try to turn it a bit. They become frightened for a second and often express that.

Are you keen on the new technologies in auto rickshaws?

Electric autos are good. But, as far as I know, EV auto rickshaws are small. There are not many e-auto rickshaws that are spacious enough to accommodate 4 passengers. Ape is actually built for northern states where they somehow manage to overload the vehicle with 10 or 15 people. Traffic laws are mostly inactive there and safety is not a concern. The range is also less. I feel EVs haven’t yet become a very practical thing yet.

Is there any competition between auto drivers just like we see in some cases with bus drivers?

I haven’t seen such a rivalry between auto drivers. Sometimes, we and bus people might have issues. Sometimes, auto drivers catch the passengers of the bus when we run in front of them. That creates a friction between us.

We generally don’t see many auto rickshaws using the metre. Why is it so? Does it lack the practicality?

If we measure metre, the passenger has to give 15 per km. If a passenger is traveling for
10 km, it will be 150 as per the metre charge. But the government has told us to charge 50% extra from the passenger other than what it is showing in the metre. That’s a problem. That’s the conflict we are having with the motor vehicle department and the laws.

Are you aware of the shared auto rickshaws? How do you see that concept?

Yes, it’s good for a newcomer to the field as they will get an auto to drive for200 or `250 per day of rent. We only have to give them that money. They will take care of the major maintenance that happens. The driver should only have to bear the minor repairs and fuel expenses. So, it’s convenient. There are business owners who own more than 50 auto rickshaws that run like this.

When are you starting the work for a day?

I usually start at 8.30 in the morning and would generally go till 9 in the evening. It may vary according to situations and days. Our job is not defined in a 9-5 framework.

Tell us about your family.

I have three children. All of them have completed their higher studies. My daughter is married and I am a grandfather now.

Work-life balance is a hot topic at any job these days. What about that in this profession? Are you getting enough time to spend with your family?

I have done everything in my life by driving this auto. Whether it is the education of my children, my daughter’s marriage, or building my own home. I am also a socially and politically active person. I started to work at the age of 14. I turned to auto driving at the age of 28. One thing is that we don’t have any leaves like an office. Most of us work for each and every day. That’s what we love about the profession. We are a team of individuals who always want to be with people and be a helping hand to society in whatever little ways we can. As I said earlier, We would be able to sleep with peace and satisfaction at night. That’s such a great feeling.

I also have an acre of farmland and I love to do farming. It’s both a refreshing and regenerative activity for me. I cultivate vegetables and it is also a two-hour long exercise in the morning for me.

What is the message you have to give to the newcomers in the auto rickshaw field and to the people in general?

Once you are in, it’s very difficult to bid adieu to this field. You will slowly fall in love with the profession and become completely immersed in it. After all, you will have a good relationship with most people in society and you will get a decent sum of money in your pocket to lead your life. I wish every youngster to live a life that would serve society and its people rather than be a completely selfish nuisance.

Could you tell us a few words about the lovely relationship you have with your companion on the roads?

My vehicle is like my children. My auto is named “Kannan”. It is the name of my second child. At times, people might not know my name but they will be familiar with my “Kannan”. That’s how close our vehicles are to us. In the end, this auto is the one that feeds us. This vehicle is where we spend most of our time during the day. Naturally, we develop a human-like relationship with the auto rickshaw. We take care of it and it takes care of us too. That’s it.

-Vaishnav Satheesh

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