Chennai's Annadurai enjoys a rare quiet moment. Photo: Asia Times

It wasn’t his aim or ambition to become an autowallah (auto-driver). But six years ago, Annadurai – who had dropped out of school and was struggling to find a job – found himself driving his father’s auto on the Thiruvanmiyur-Sholinganallur route in Chennai. Little did he know then that fame awaited – that he would be an online sensation, delivering TED Talks, inspiring entrepreneurs and bagging awards and accolades while fielding calls from international media.

“Passengers give me my daily bread,” says “Anna”, reflecting on the transformation he has undergone. “They are my God and I have to satisfy their needs.”

In his new profession, Anna soon started thinking about how to enrich his passengers’ journeys. First, he introduced reading material – newspapers and magazines, both in English and regional Indian languages. Then, he decided to offer Wi-Fi. The year was 2011, and the concept was still pretty new in India. Immediately, Anna recalls, his income doubled from Rs700 (US$11) per day to Rs1400-1500.

“I gave them super-fast internet,” he says. “But many of them did not have a smartphone. So, I got a Samsung Galaxy Tab II Note 800, which cost around Rs34,500 (US$532.35), in 2013.” The same year, he launched a website for his “Amazing Auto” users, and in 2014, he bought a Lenovo Flex 10 to help passengers work on the go. In January of 2016, he upgraded his tablet to a 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which cost him around Rs90,000. There is also a television, with programmes in eight languages. To this day, rides in his “share auto” cost Rs10-25 (US$0.15-US$0.39). Anna says he paid for his first tablet with a loan, which he has now repaid, and for his latest kit with savings.

One of Anna’s passenger’s takes advantage of his on-board tablet. Photo: Asia Times

“I go by the meter fare prescribed by the government. My concepts have made me popular enough and I earn a lot more than an average autowallah, despite all the spendings on the magazines and gadgets,” says possibly the only Indian autowallah who pays his taxes with pride – Rs1,800 last time round.

Other Anna innovations include the SBI card-swiping machine he bought in 2014 and the several mobile wallet options, such as PaisaPay, that he offers for customers. Customers can even pay their fare through Anna’s app, which also allows them to locate his auto and book a ride and through which they will soon be able to order food.

“Passengers give me my daily bread. They are my God and I have to satisfy their needs”

To engage with customers, he introduced a monthly general knowledge competition. “I started it as an initiative to develop relationships with customers,” he says. “But some of passengers would refuse both the contest and prize money. Especially because they do not expect such things from an ordinary autowallah.” Indeed, auto drivers are often viewed with distrust in India – a prejudice which Anna has fought hard to overcome.

“I have built some very good relationship with my customers, some of whom would cancel their travel plans if I was not available,” says the 32-year-old, who has learned to welcome customers in more than 10 languages and offers promotions including free rides for mothers over 40 on Mother’s Day and fathers over 40 on Father’s Day.

A restless entrepreneur, Anna has plans to expand his services through tie-ups with other autorickshaws in Chennai. For now, his success has given him a degree of celebrity and he has been invited to give speeches to various institutions and conferences. He claims he earns more than enough money and his phone never stops ringing, but adds that he’ll keep searching for new ways to keep his customers happy.

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