Known for their mood swings and nasty refusals, rickshaw drivers of the city can hardly be counted as do-gooders. But 53-year-old Kailash Krishna Mali, a rickshaw driver from Dehu Road, is catching people by surprise and setting the record right as he goes around town giving free rides to senior citizens, physically challenged and pregnant women.
Mali started his mission 11 years ago after a chance encounter with a young unemployed boy. “The boy was willing to work hard for a living but nobody was giving him work. I pulled some strings here and there and managed to get him a job as a rickshaw driver. It felt very nice to help someone else and I realised how fulfilling it is to be a blessing,” says Mali, who has been driving rickshaw for 25 years. The idea struck that helping people should not be a one-off deed and so he began offering free rides to pregnant women and the elderly on his way home after a hard day's work.
When word first got around about his service, fellow rickshaw drivers sneered at him and called him crazy. Now, however, is a different story. “Initially, I would hear people talk behind my back and say that I was losing my mind by not charging. But it did not matter to me. The passengers' smiles gave me inner peace. Eventually, other drivers also got inspired and we were able to form a group that has been doing what I do in other parts of the city,” says Mali. Called the Sahara Ashram Sanstha, the group that Mali founded three years ago, has seven autorickshaw drivers waiting to rescue senior citizens and pregnant women from being pushed around bus stands or struggling to travel across the city. While Mali drives in the Dehu area, his comrades are found near Kothurd, Warje, Hadapsar, Wakad, Pimpri and Chinchwad.
“We also try and offer any other help that we can. From helping unemployed people find work to arranging weddings to collecting clothes and food for the needy, we do just about anything,” says Mali, who distributes visiting cards with his contact number and details of the Sanstha to all passengers so they can get in touch with him whenever they need. And he does not let them down. “Now many people know me in the Dehu Road area and call me when they need my services. Just last month a pregnant woman from Nare called me at 2am as she was going into labour and had to rush to Jagtap Hospital in Anandnagar,” he says. In recognition of his work, Mali has also been given a certificate by Bharat Gas Agency, Shivajinagar, to skip the line and directly go to the emergency petrol booth to refuel his vehicle at any petrol pump in the city.
About how the finances work for him to be able to indulge in his social service, Mali says he has not given up picking passengers for a fee. “It helps sustain the cost of fuel and expenses of servicing the vehicle. I have two sons — 29 and 31 years old — who are working and give me Rs 2,000 a month for my expenses. My family is very supportive of the work I do,” he says.