Bindaas all the way for Mr. Autowallah

Updated: Jul 27, 2020, 08:16 IST | Fiona Fernandez | Mumbai

The verdict is out: The autowallahs are the runaway winners when it comes to serial offenders with their shockingly casual attitude towards the pandemic

Fiona FernandezIf any autowallah in my neighbourhood ends up learning about the contents of this column, chances are, I might have to lug out my under-utilised bicycle to move around for essentials and errands. Truth is, the past two weeks have presented somewhat of a shocker each time I've had to commute in an autorickshaw. The lackadaisical attitude of most autowallahs towards following adequate safety measures for themselves and passengers didn't offer any assurance at all.

Back in early June, I had predicted this development in one of my columns where I was trying to figure how certain types of junta will be able to carry on with work while wearing a face mask – like the bhajiwallah, the Koli fisherwoman [both needed to exercise their vocal cords to draw in customers], and the autowallah [for his spitting routine or yelling out gaalis while driving around town]. Turns out, these not-so-cool riders haven't been wearing masks since it hampers them from engaging in this very same "time-pass" – the spitting projectile routine. Who listens to the countless social media messages to explain how a few simple precautions can go a long way in keeping numbers under control?

On most occasions where I had to sit in these carriers of doom, the autowallah in question had to be reminded to wear his mask [as it was dangling around his neck] or to use his handkerchief as a makeshift mask.

Me: "Bhai saab, aapka mask kahan hai? Please pehenke gaadi chalao"

Mr No-Mask: "Bahut garmi ho raha tha; solid traas deta hai, madam."

As if that wasn't enough, along the way, they'd regularly lift the mask and spit out gutkha, paan or whatever else that simply couldn't remain in their mouths. It was a ritual that continued with alarming periodicity at every traffic signal and whenever the auto would slow down. No care was taken to ensure where this projectile would land.

Me: "Bhai saab, aapko pata hai na, kaunsi bimaari poori duniya mein fail gaya hai?

Spitting champ: Haan. Pata hain…woh COVID wala. Lekin yeh toh aadat hai [referring to his spitting habit]; thookne se kya ho sakta hai?

The plastic partitioned shield was also not installed in most autos that were plying during these weekly trips. In comparison, I found that other people I had come in regular contact with, be it the many veggie vendors, our building complex garbage collector, the gardener and the watchmen, were far more careful about safety measures.

On two such occasions, I decided to bunk the ride; I hopped off the auto mid-way, and walked the rest of the way to my destination. Of course, our hero didn't quite understand what the fuss was all about. "Madam ko khaali-fukat gussa ho gaya." The cheeky fella was in no mood to figure what went wrong.

Going by accounts I've heard from friends in other suburbs, there seems to be a common thread of these episodic horror stories. So, who reins in these spitting heroes? Will the cops adopt strict measures to keep this errant species under control with heavy fines? Can focused awareness programmes directed at all autowallahs come into play? Can the leaders of auto unions take the lead, and guide their flock to toe the line for the greater benefit of society? Because for people like yours truly and a million others who have to rely on public transport, they are an important cog in the safety wheel, especially now.

If such pests are viewing the lockdown as a thing of the past, and with it, lowering their guard about the pandemic, civic authorities and the police also need to step up to ensure this doesn't become the norm; already, we are seeing evidence of no difference between the old and 'new' normal. In Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray's recent interview, he reiterated the need to be cautious despite opening up the economy, and that health should take precedence over everything else. This ought to find resonance across the board. Else, all the hard work put in by our frontline workers for four months will come to naught thanks to folks who seem to be working on auto pilot (pun fully intended). This is clearly not the time to be bindaas.

mid-day's Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city's sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana
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