‘A Trip To The Doctor Means Loss Of Wages, I Can’t Afford That’

A single mother of two, this e-rickshaw driver in Tinsukia says life is a daily struggle to balance earnings and expense

As I leave home on an errand on a hot Thursday morning, I spot a woman riding an e-rickshaw on the road. Intrigued, I hop on to her ‘tom-tom’ as it is called in Assam. She tells me her name is Minoti Das, and she is quite used to startled looks from passers-by. 

“I get that a lot,” says Minoti, who appears to be in her 40s, and has been driving e-rickshaws around Tinsukia for four years now. 

Abandoned by her husband, she has been supporting herself and her two school-going  daughters by ferrying the town’s commuters and goods across locations. Her daily income, she says, ranges between Rs 600 and Rs 1000, and her monthly income never exceeds Rs 10,000.

After paying for food, electricity, fuel, and her e-rickshaw battery, she barely has any savings. Her husband used to work as a contractor and brought in around Rs 1-2 lakh a month but his addiction to gambling and alcohol, and this blew a big hole in his earnings. 

“We had a joint account and I would deposit whatever money he would give me,” she recalls. So when she suspected that her husband was on the verge of leaving her, she withdrew her share from the bank and bought an e-rickshaw for Rs 1.35 lakh. She hid it in her sister’s home and rented it out to youngsters in the neighbourhood for the first few months of 2020.

“If he got to know this, he wouldn’t let me live,” says Minoti of her husband. Once he left her, she brought the vehicle home and started driving it. But it has not been easy because her savings are low. “I spend around Rs 3000 every month on the e-rick’s maintenance. Gari bilak eku guarantee nai (these vehicles have no guarantee) – sometimes the accelerator fails, sometimes the brake drum, or the wheel bearing fails,” she says Minoti.

The vehicle needs six hours of power supply to be fully charged and Minoti says she knows of no charging points in the town. So she charges it at home. This is both expensive and inconvenient because Assam has frequent power cuts. “I do a recharge of Rs 1000. It doesn’t even last a month (Assam has a prepaid electricity bill system),” she says. 

Electronic Vehicle (EV) batteries need to be changed twice in 10 years, however, in the last four years, Minoti has had to change the battery of her vehicle twice. “The batteries mostly stop working after a year and if you are lucky it lasts for 2 years,” says Minoti. The Electric Vehicle Policy of Assam, 2021 states that EV owners can return vehicle batteries that have reached the end of their lives to any charging point or swapping station and receive a payment in return. Since there are no charging points or swapping stations in the town, she cannot avail this facility.

Assam’s inflation rate of 6.08% is higher than the all-India rate of 5.09%, per government data from February 2024. Manipur (10.9%), Odisha (7.5%) and Telangana (6.7%) are the top three states with highest inflation rates.

With rising inflation, household debt is at an all-time high – 40% of the Gross Domestic Product (December 2023). And there has been a 47-year low in the net financial savings – at 5.1% of GDP. These together define the financial distress that households in India are grappling with.

At Behanbox, we wanted to map the costs and burdens of this distress in real time. This is our sixth edition of ‘Inflation Journals’, a series that shows through real life stories from across India how households are coping with rising costs and debt.

Learning To Drive

Minoti remembers being depressed on her first day of work. “For 18 years, I had stayed at home and cared for my children. Now I had to leave them alone at home. My youngest daughter was 6 at the time, and the other was 13. I was concerned if they would be able to feed themselves,” she says.

It didn’t help that the community was not helpful either. “Bohute muk gali disile ki maa’e eneke keneke korile, suali kijoni okole keneke eribo parole  (everyone said: how can a mother abandon her children),” she says. 

For the first six months after her husband moved out, Minoti was too frightened to ride the vehicle. “Mur laaz lagibo jodi muk kunubaye dekhiloi (I was ashamed of being recognised on the road),” she remembers.

It was boys from her neighbourhood who taught her how to drive. The first day, she hit a cycle rickshaw and was deeply embarrassed. But in time she learnt to drive confidently.

Most commuters want to know if she has a husband and how he feels about her working. This irks Minoti, who feels that it shouldn’t matter if she’s single or married. She has decided to ignore barbs from people about her line of work. “My children’s future is at stake. Etiya kotha bur gaat nologa hol (now these comments don’t bother me),” says Minoti.

Work and singlehood has also been a liberating experience, she says. Her husband was controlling and abusive. Now she and her daughters feel more at ease. She meets 20-30 people a day on the road. “I feel more confident. The public space has changed. I also feel more respected,” she says.

In the early days, she says her older daughter once felt ashamed of her mother’s work. “I would drop them to school and pick them up too and they wouldn’t want their friends to see that I do this work. But now, with circumstances, they have also grown up,” says Minoti.

Women are more eager to hail her rickshaw and she now has a steady list of women customers, mostly young students and professionals. One of her regular customers are a bunch of school going girls who study in the town’s Budding Buds Senior Secondary School. Their parents trust her with their children, she says.

Cost Of Freedom

Minoti has learnt to deal with finances and is teaching her daughters to do so as well. 
Her day starts at 4:30 am, and finishes work by 11 pm. These long hours mean that she doesn’t get to spend much time with her daughters, and it bothers her.

On good days she earns Rs 1000, and on tight days her income doesn’t exceed Rs 600. Of this, she tries to save Rs 400. So the family cuts back on its food consumption. 

“We are all fond of paneer but we eat it only once a month. We buy Rs 100 worth of chicken 2-3 times a week. And we buy the cheapest dal, masoor, in quarters,” says Minoti.

Minoti is also the beneficiary of the Orunodoi scheme, a state government scheme that provides monetary benefits of Rs 1250 monthly to women from low-income families. But payment is irregular. “Because it’s election season, I received the amount for the last 3-4 months. Otherwise for six months, I hadn’t received it,” she says.

Her oldest daughter wants to study in Dibrugarh University, 50 km away, but she cannot afford it. “I won’t be able to earn if she leaves town for college. Who will take care of my younger daughter?” she says. She’s considering enrolling in a local college. 

Most of her earnings are also spent on her own healthcare. She is diabetic, and the doctor has said that this comes from long long periods of sitting in her e-rickshaw. She spends Rs 600 monthly on her medication for this. Besides this, she has had her kidney stones removed but continues to suffer from chronic pain.

She has not been able to afford to see a doctor. She says she also has a lump around her breast, which her doctor has suggested needs to be operated on. “Going to the doctor means losing wages and I can’t afford that,” says Minoti.

‘Earn A Quarter Of What Men Do’

Minoti is cautious about her own safety on the road and she says that this means she earns only a quarter of what male drivers do. 

She says she turns down customers who want to travel to far destinations or to poorly lit interior locations. She sometimes asks a male driver to keep her company on rides to places that make her anxious and makes sure to split her earnings with him. Sometimes her daughters accompany her on night trips to the New Tinsukia Railway Station in Hijuguri. She also makes sure her daughters and friends know her location when she is on errands that do not seem safe – picking up consignments from godowns, for instance.

Minoti says male commuters avoid her vehicle because of her gender. They feel they cannot bargain with a woman or do not trust her driving skills or feel she will refuse to go to certain locations, she says.

Minoti says she is particular about not setting off any gossip that could affect her social standing. But she also craves companionship. “I feel a vacuum in my life; I too want a partner and think about marriage. But since I have to live in this society, I can’t do much [about it]. My children will one day get married and leave, who will take care of me then?” 

But despite the frenetic pace of her life she and her daughters manage to have some fun. They drive to Guijan ghat for a picnic or she cooks a biryani feast at home. 

What can the government do for single women drivers, I ask her. “They should install more street lights. Ensure that the police patrols public spaces more and make it safer for women,” says Minoti. 

  • Ankita Dhar is a reporter with Behanbox. She is also a digital artist whose artwork has documented political prisoners in India.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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