“Nadi chya kathawar ek naav hoti” (there was a boat near the river bank) reads a nervous Anil Kumar from the colourful pages of a Std V Marathi textbook, as a stern-looking traffic officer peers at him. Kumar, who hails from a village near Kanpur, has been living in Mumbai for more than 20 years, and claims that he can speak better Marathi than most auto drivers. “I can speak and read Marathi well, and my children go to Marathi medium schools. But this test is completely unnecessary. How does language matter, if we take commuters where they want to go?” asked Kumar.

Also Read: Want to drive an auto in Mumbai? Learn to read Marathi first

An auto driver reads out from Marathi textbook for the test. Pics/ Datta Kumbhar
An auto driver reads out from Marathi textbook for the test. Pics/ Datta Kumbhar

For the last four days, auto drivers have been brushing up their Marathi skills for a week-long oral test drive at the Wadala Regional Transport Office (RTO), after the state government made it compulsory for permit-seeking auto drivers to have basic knowledge of Marathi.

Auto drivers await their turn for the Marathi proficiency test at the Wadala RTO on Tuesday Auto drivers await their turn for the Marathi proficiency test at the Wadala RTO on Tuesday 

Every morning since February 27, over 500 auto drivers line up at the RTOs, and anxiously wait for their ‘roll numbers’ to be called out. The ‘students’ are then ushered into rooms, where RTO officials and a Marathi language expert quiz them.

Read Story: Most auto permits went to non-Marathi people last year: Maharashtra CM

Anxious auto drivers revise their Marathi just before the exam
Anxious auto drivers revise their Marathi just before the exam

“If I want to go to Borivali National Park from Andheri, how will you take me?” asks Prashant Londhe, one of the RTO officials testing the drivers, before asking them to read out excerpts from the textbook.

The successful candidates are asked to deposit the permit fee through a demand draft, after verifying their documents.

“The test is not just about speaking Marathi, but also testing their knowledge of routes and the way they speak to commuters,” said Londhe.

To every other auto driver, the officials asked questions like, ‘what is left and right in Marathi? What are the tourist spots in Mumbai? How do you address women commuters?

The passing criteria, however is not too stringent, and on an average, about 70% drivers pass the test, we are told.

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This leniency worked in Mohammed Nasir’s favour. A 45-year-old auto driver, Nasir, who came in for the test on Tuesday looked visibly nervous. After sputtering a few answers in broken Marathi, he pleaded with the officials to not test his reading skills, and they relented.

“Drivers who have studied till Std VIII are asked to read from the textbook. Others who are not literate but manage to speak basic Marathi are granted permits. This is not some board exam, right?” said Vijay Bhoye, assistant RTO.

However, Bhoye admits that the test has put many people off, not to mention the Rs 16,000 fee for the permit.

“Only 50 or 60% of the people chosen for permits have turned up. Some people are upset with this new rule, but what can we do? It’s a state government directive. The fees for the permits have also been hiked, keeping many people away,” he said.

The auto drivers who pass the test may not get degrees or toss their hats in the air, they just drive away in their rickshaws, with a smile.