After India gained independence from the British Raj, political leaders faced a mammoth task of improving the living standards of the citizens.
In a February 1947 session of the then-Bombay’s legislative assembly, a member raised the issue of the inhuman conditions of rickshaw pullers.
While there were arguments to discontinue the cycle rickshaws altogether, it was freedom fighter Navalmal Kundalmal Firodia who came up with a better solution — a three-wheeler auto-rickshaw.
He submitted a plan to Morarji Desai, the then home minister of Bombay province, and was told that if the vehicle was satisfactory from “a technical viewpoint”, it could be permitted under the public conveyance plan.
Firodia’s Jaya Hind Industries formed a joint venture with Bachhraj Trading Corporation (later known as Bajaj Auto Private Limited) to make this happen.
To gain a deeper understanding, Firodia purchased a scooter and two three-wheeler goods carriers from Piaggio in Italy. They studied these models and made various modifications.
In 1948, Firodia arrived at the final product and demonstrated it to Nehru in the assembly. Painted in green and yellow, the auto-rickshaws were a mix of a hand-driven carriage and an automated two-wheeler.
After receiving approval in the Bombay province, Firodia recognised another opportunity to promote his vehicle when cycle rickshaws were banned in Pune.
In December 1950, N Keshava Iyengar, the mayor of Bangalore, granted licenses for 10 auto-rickshaws in the capital of the princely state of Mysore.
After the Bajajs and Firodias went their separate ways, the auto-rickshaw came under the Bajaj Group and became a symbol of affordable urban transport for the middle class.
By 1973, Bajaj Auto was exporting three-wheelers to Nigeria, Bangladesh, Australia, Sudan, Bahrain, Hong Kong and Yemen.
In 1977, the company introduced rear-engine auto rickshaws and sold over a lakh of them.
Before 1980, these vehicles were limited to carrying only two passengers at a time. However, now auto rickshaws can accommodate as many passengers as can comfortably fit on the seats.
As per data from EMBARQ, auto-rickshaws in tier-2 cities number between 15,000 and 30,000, to more than 50,000 in tier-1 cities. The sector also employs an estimated five million people!
Firodia not only introduced this passenger vehicle in India but also coined the term 'auto-rickshaw', which now finds its place in the Oxford Dictionary.