A petrol station is not exactly a place where you would expect to get a lesson in social sensitivity. Yet, Megha Kale's petrol pump, located near the Sai Mandir in Nagpur, Maharashtra, is an exception.
In the five months since it came into being, the station has generated plenty of interest amongst its customers as well as passers-by. The reason: the petrol station has seven handicapped employees, who work just as hard and as efficiently as do their able-bodied colleagues. "When I decided to employ handicapped people at my petrol pump, I didn't do it out of any sentimental ideas. It was an experiment, with highly specific goals," says the forty-two-year-old employer.
According to Megha, the petrol pump business is highly competitive. As quick and efficient service is considered essential, the handicapped are often overlooked when it comes to employment at a pump. "With each passing day, employment opportunities for this section of society are tapering out instead of opening up," she says.
For Megha, getting a petrol station allotted in her name was not easy. Most petrol companies would baulk at the idea of employing the handicapped at a pump. Over the years, her repeated applications were turned down on this ground. "But I was determined to take up this business precisely because of the competition involved," says a gritty Megha.
"Because of my familial and educational background, and also because I am married to a handicapped person (Megha's husband, Suhas, like her, has post- polio paralysis), I have encountered less discrimination than usually experienced by the handicapped," she states. Megha hails from a well-to-do business family of Amravati, Maharashtra.
The couple had once owned a telephone booth, employing handicapped people. However, Megha realized that she was perpetuating a stereotype. "Having worked with handicapped people in both the rural and urban areas, I realize that it is only the least challenging and non-competitive of jobs that are set aside for the handicapped. I had to break that mould; I had to find openings in a more challenging field, for myself and for others. Hence, the petrol pump."
At present, six of Megha's staff are people who suffer from polio, while one employee is a sickle-cell patient. Of the disabled, three are women. Says Megha, "Till date, none of the customers have ever had reason to complain. It is true that they are a bit slow, but they make up with their dedication and honesty. My pump is the only one in the city where, when you buy petrol worth Rs 50, you get petrol worth Rs 50, not Rs 49.90. People appreciate that." Business at the pump is steadily picking up. Today, the daily sales are around 5,000 litres a big jump from the early 1,000 litres a day. But with business now growing, is it prudent to continue employing the disabled?
The answer comes from Rajesh, an employee, "I have a 55 per cent handicap in my leg," he says. "Initially, I used to have trouble walking quickly from one point to another. Now, I have arranged all the paraphernalia - the pump buttons, nozzles, oil can and pouches and other small instruments - in such a way that I can meet all the requirements of customers, and even collect money and hand out change standing in one place. My speed has improved ever since."
His colleague Manjusha Panbude, who has a fused knee in her left leg, says, "Customers are considerate. Many are only too glad to move their vehicles for our convenience rather than expect us to walk up to them. That, and a little organization, goes a long way in making sure that we attend to all quickly."
Most of Megha's employees agree that working at a petrol station is far more challenging than the usual work reserved for the disabled. Mamta Adyalkar says, "I have my own beauty parlor where I work in the evenings, so I am not hard pressed for money. But I work here in the day because of the exposure it brings. I get to meet a lot of people, get to work with other handicapped people, and receive more appreciation than I would in my own business."
"It is certainly better than sitting in a dark corner all day making cotton wicks, for Rs 600 a month," adds Rajesh, referring to his earlier job.
Each employee has to put in eight hours of work (which can sometimes stretch to 9 or ten) and is paid a modest salary of Rs 1,500 (US$1=Rs 40) per month. Megha admits that the amount is small, but is higher than the around-Rs 1,000 that most petrol pump employees in Nagpur usually make. "With a Rs 40,00,000- loan to pay back, it is difficult for me to raise salaries now," she admits and adds, "My employees are honest, and don't make money on 'cuts'. Maybe as the business improves I will be able to compensate them better."
Megha is working towards a group health insurance plan whereby the pump will pay half the premium, and employees will receive a substantial concession on the remaining amount. "For the handicapped, medical expenses tend to be on the higher side," she explains.
Megha dreams of having her petrol station manned entirely by handicapped staff. "I also wish to employ a blind person to make announcements and deliver social messages. I know that this last is a long way off, but I will eventually do that," promises the determined employer.
For the disabled, fuelling dreams is next to the impossible, but for this group of determined individuals, the future is definitely pumping up into shape.