On a hot Amdavadi afternoon, when the roads were as deserted as they could be, the Sabarmati Ashram was buzzing with visitors. There were school kids, a group of elderly ladies and some foreigners taking a stroll around the ashram, mainly in the museum—the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalay. While I was roaming around, my phone rang. "Hello," said the voice at the other end. "I am standing opposite to the Ashram." I'll be there in five minutes, I said. Just as I reached the ashram exit, I had a look at the opposite end of the road. An Amdavadi auto-driver, with a Gandhi cap on his head, waved his hand. I wondered how he recognised me, meeting for the first time.
Udaybhai, as everyone calls him, came to me and took me and my mother (who was accompanying me, which made me a little nervous as she was witnessing my work for the first time) for a ride till Safaai Vidyalaya (a very low-profile unexplored place right next to the Sabarmati Ashram). While we sat in the auto, Udaybhai took out two smiley-adorned badges and pinned one of them to my t-shirt. Having done so, he started describing what was unique about his vehicle. Energy, excitement and brightness radiated from him as he ran me through each feature of the autorickshaw.
It has facilities that are not even found in cabs. Not only are there newspapers, magazines and other literature to read, there are two containers on each side at the back (labelled "love" and "truth") holding snacks and water bottles for the passengers. There's even a dustbin so that passengers are not tempted to litter. However, the most unique aspect of the auto is that the meter always reads ZERO.
After every trip, Udaybhai provides each passenger with a self-written greeting card-cum-envelope in which to will place the amount of his/her choice.
Udaybhai started "Ahmedabad no Rickshawalo" on 21 October 2010, the auspicious day of Dussehra, with the concept of a "gift-economy" in mind. The idea is that someone before you has paid for your travel; now you have to pay it forward for a subsequent passenger. After every trip, Udaybhai provides each passenger with a self-written greeting card-cum-envelope in which to will place the amount of his/her choice. The concept is similar to the Seva Café at CG Road. Inspired by the work of Manav Sadhna—an NGO based in the Gandhi Ashram, dedicated to the upliftment of the underprivileged, especially children, through love – and the work of Padmashri Ishwarbhai Patel, the seed for the initiative was sown in the brain of Udaybhai.
Born and brought up in Ahmedabad, with a family of 10—parents, wife, three kids, brother, sister and her son—Udaybhai comes from a very middle-class family with a load of responsibilities. It takes a lot of guts to jump into something like this for a person with this kind of a family background. But his conviction in his beliefs, determination to add love to his work and the appreciation of customers, drives him to continue with the concept.
Udaybhai recalls, "Once, while I was coming back after dropping a passenger, I saw a blind man trying to cross the road. But he wasn't able to do so due to heavy traffic. So I went to him and asked to hop onto the auto. He was reluctant at first but then agreed. After taking him to the other side of the street, I asked him where he wanted to go. He said, 'No thanks, I will reach by my own.' He was probably hesitant since he thought that I would charge him. After I insisted, he told that he wanted to reach Hirpur, to his blind men's hostel. Once he sat, he told me his entire life story and I shared mine too. While talking about all this, we reached his hostel. His hostel's warden came out running and worried since it was unusual for the hostel students to come down in a private auto. However, he was pleasantly surprised once he came to know about the concept and invited me inside for a cup of tea."
He believes that at the end of the day, it is peace of mind and not money that will bring him a good night's sleep.
These are the kind of experiences that keep Udaybhai's spirits up, despite all the financial hiccups. Of course, there are bitter experiences as well but nothing compared to the pleasant ones. In future, Udaybhai intends to expand this drive and have many more such rickshaws. He believes that at the end of the day, it is peace of mind and not money that will bring him a good night's sleep.
Besides running his auto, Udaybhai provides his services to Seva Café— a volunteer-run restaurant where someone before you pays for your meal, and you pay forward for those after you. He is also involved in other activities of Manav Sadhna.
This article was written by Jay Mehta and first appeared at TheBetterIndia.
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