A rockstar auto driver Meet the unsung heroes recognised and awarded by the Rotary Club of Madras East.

Commuters enjoying a ride in Annadurai’s autorickshaw.
Commuters enjoying a ride in Annadurai’s autorickshaw.

He got a credit card swiping machine 30 months ago, well before the Government’s push towards a cashless economy by its latest demonetisation move. On Facebook he reached the limit of 5,000 friends two years ago, and can’t have any more friends. His FB page titled Amazing Auto has 10,150 ‘likes’. He pays his income tax willingly and proudly, and is happy that every rupee he pays as tax goes into “Arun Jaitley Sir’s budget”. He has addressed 65 corporates as a guest lecturer and wants to meet Ratan Tata; “I want to change the auto sector in India.”

Meet Annadurai, a rockstar auto driver in Chennai, who has endeared his customers so much through his flawless and innovative service, his integrity and friendliness, that “many foreigners who stay in five-star hotels such as ITC Grand Chola, Taj or Hyatt and can get free rides to the airport in luxury cars, prefer to book my auto to the airport. And autos are not allowed at the airport terminals, so they get off, often with their families, and drag their suitcases to the departure area,” he smiles, adding, “Once you travel in my auto, you will not remain a customer; you’ll become my friend!”

On the road, while directing traffic, I get attention by wearing white gloves, whistling loudly, smiling at people.
– M Kumar

Annadurai is one of the three “unsung heroes” recognised and honoured by the Rotary Club of Madras East, D 3230, recently, along with R Harigaran, a teacher who quit his job seven years ago to give meaningful education in the evenings to schoolchildren from Government schools; and M Kumar, a traffic cop who considers vehicle users and pedestrians around his Sholinganallur traffic junction in Chennai his “customers”.

S S Rajsekar, who has spearheaded many flagship welfare projects in this club, including mass screening of Corporation schoolchildren a few decades ago, says, “When our club honoured them, it was amazing to listen to them. They don’t have any fancy degrees but they spoke like professional speakers. Normally, if the speaker goes beyond 20 minutes, the members start protesting. But here when the President of the club K Ananth asked them to curtail their speech, there were protests saying: ‘No, no, let them speak!’ ”

Traffic cop M Kumar
Traffic cop M Kumar

Adds Ananth, “In this project we’ve recognised people who go beyond the call of duty, find happiness in the job they do, bring joy to others and become role models.” Sudarshan Ranganathan, secretary of the club, said project chairman Mohamed Mansoor Ahmed had focused mainly on the social media, and shortlisted some candidates.

“I first connected with Annadurai and he connected me to Traffic Kumar, since both of them operate in the IT Corridor,” says Ahmed.

Customer is god

Annadurai’s philosophy is simple; customers give us money so they are our gods and deserve something in return. He started by keeping 8 newspapers and 35-40 magazines in his auto, but soon found that “70 per cent of my customers were not reading these, but browsing on their phones.” So he got connectivity for their phones; “now it is easy but not in 2011. The idea was to give them quality and speed during the 10-20 minutes they spend in my auto.”

Next he found that not all his passengers had smart phones, so for them he got a Samsung tablet, but as it didn’t “support PDF files, I first got a laptop and then an iPad!” All these are kept in the back seat with a sign that passengers can use them for free.

Auto driver Annadurai
Auto driver Annadurai

Did generous tips make this possible? “Oh no, I don’t accept any tips. I could do all this because thanks to my service my business doubled.” Once a foreigner gave him Rs 1,000 for a Rs 30 fare, and “when I said I don’t have change he said, ‘keep the change, I really enjoyed your service,’ I told him politely I don’t like to keep your money. For a moment he was totally taken aback, and I could see he realised that India has changed!”

Annadurai is 31 and single. Has he not considered marriage? “Well, more than the people who loot crores of rupees, I consider the one who confines his thinking only to his family a more selfish person.” I absorb his deep philosophy, as he explains that he wants to go beyond the circle that confines you if you have a family, to serve the larger community.

So does he consider his customers his family? “That is not possible,” he quips!

I don’t accept any tips. I could do all this because thanks to my service my business doubled.
– Annadurai

Credit card payment

Next came the problem of change; “as I operate in Chennai’s IT corridor, most of my customers get paid by bank transfers and they had to struggle to find change to pay me.” So he decided to introduce credit card payment and approached his bank to get the swiping machine.

“The bank manager asked me what shop do you have. When I said I want it for an auto, you should have seen his reaction,” laughs Annadurai. He was next asked for eight documents, including “company logo, seal, company registration, rental agreement, current account, visiting card, etc. I submitted all these in two weeks and got the machine!”

Believe it or not, he has a company called Amazing Auto registered in his name! What comes next is even more amazing and could be a script right from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s book when he announced the demonetisation of high value currency on November 8. Only Annadurai had said all this 30 months earlier!

Harigaran’s students play a game of chess.
Harigaran’s students play a game of chess.

“I gave my customers the option of credit card payments and told them that we have to move to a digital India and open transactions to check corruption and eliminate black money, as many people are dodging their taxes!” Now over 60 per cent of his passengers pay through credit or debit cards and the regulars “themselves swipe the card on the machine.”

Having done this, he next felt that as an Indian citizen he had to pay some tax, so he got an auditor and filed his IT returns paying Rs 1,500. Last year, when Rs 2,000 was given to Chennaiites after the debilitating floods, “I felt proud to think that my contribution was Rs 1,500!”

Next came payment on mobile through mVisa which requires a QR code. Perennially on the quest to innovate, Annadurai now offers a quiz to his passengers and the monthly prize is Rs 1,000.

My first challenge was to give them self-confidence. We begin the class with meditation which brings self control.
– R Harigaran

About 7-8 foreigners are regular clients and “people from the countries which I didn’t even know existed on the map have travelled in my auto. The Daily Mail of UK has written about me, as also a Pakistani magazine.” As for Indian media he reels off the names of TV channels — NDTV, CNN-IBN, Times Now, etc.

A selfless teacher

R Harigaran, a B Com graduate, is one of those selfless teachers who gave up a paid teaching job seven years ago to guide, mentor and educate poor children “in the real sense of the word, not only through books but also real knowledge.”

His service started by collecting just a handful of rice grains from friends and others and giving it to orphanages, old age homes, etc; in three years he collected 200 kg of rice.

From right: R Sudarshan, Traffic cop M Kumar, Auto driver Annadurai, Teacher - School for Change R Harigaran, Club President K Ananth, PDG Raja Ramkrishnan and Project Chairman Mohamed Mansoor Ahmed.
From right: R Sudarshan, Traffic cop M Kumar, Auto driver Annadurai, Teacher – School for Change R Harigaran, Club President K Ananth, PDG Raja Ramkrishnan and Project Chairman Mohamed Mansoor Ahmed.

But his real interest lay in education; he’d talk to students from government schools. “I asked them what is the purpose of your education; some said to become a doctor, engineer, etc. But I wanted to make them realise that the real purpose of education is knowledge.”

So in the evenings he got together a handful of children and would teach and mentor them; the objective was to groom these children into confident, articulate adults “and give them real life skills”. When the correspondent of his own school — Vivekananda School — found out about his initiative, he was happy that one of its alumni was doing such work, and gave him three classrooms.

Now his project has grown from 7 children to 100 children from nearby slums who are eager to learn at their evening school called ‘School for Change.’

Harigaran explains that these children lack concentration powers and have an inferiority complex; they were not even able to stand up and say their names confidently. “My first challenge was to give them self-confidence. We begin the class with meditation which brings self-control.”

He slowly taught them how to stand up and speak for themselves, got eminent locals from the police, medical service, advocates, etc to give guest lectures at his school. “I take the children to visit old age homes, ashrams, homes for blind, etc and tell them stories about our lesser known national heroes and freedom fighters; I want them to grow up to be leaders.”

He also makes the children take up some sport to develop their personality and holds monthly meetings with parents as “people tend to undervalue free education.”

His reward, he tells those who ask him why he gave up a paying job, is the “smiles on the children’s faces”. Adds Ahmed, “For seven years his mother encouraged him saying if you return to your job, these students will be left high and dry.”

Recently, however, he has got a job in a school where the correspondent told him “to bring about some change and give us new ideas”. He of course carries on with his work in the evenings. His dream: “Every student of mine should develop a great mind, and I want to build a school.”

M Kumar is a colourful traffic cop who starts his day “with the prayer that those who pass by the streets of his area should reach their offices, schools or colleges safely and return home safe too. In the field I consider myself a teacher, and a teacher must get the full attention of his pupils; only then they will learn. So on the road, while directing traffic, I get attention by wearing white gloves, whistling loudly, smiling at people.”

President Ananth adds that the project will continue and the club will find and recognise more such unsung heroes.

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