It’s 11.30am. The classroom is packed. On the projector screen there is a picture of protesters in front of Rashtrapati Bhavan. “Do you know anything about this picture? asks Namrata Sharan, the instructor.
A number of hands immediately go up in the air. “The picture is from Nirbhaya case,” they all say in unison.
The trainer tells the class how tourist arrivals to the city sharply declined after the December 16 gang rape, affecting the livelihood of auto drivers. She reminds them that 80% of their passengers are women.
Everyone in the class — about 150 auto drivers — listen with rapt attention.
These drivers are attending an hour-long mandatory training in women safety and gender sensitisation programme conducted by Manas Foundation (a mental health organisation), in collaboration with the Delhi government’s transport department, at the Ashok Leyland Drivers’ Training Institute in Burari.
The stated objective of the class is training the drivers in the nuances of treating women with respect in the city.
About 300 drivers take the class every day in two shifts. In January this year, the government made this training mandatory — the auto drivers cannot receive the annual fitness certificate for their vehicles unless they go through this training in gender sensitisation. So far, about 45,000 auto drivers have attended the classes.
Delhiites might have reasons to feel that the attitude of auto drivers towards their passengers in general and women passenger in particular remains bad as ever, but at the gender sensitisation class — that the HT attended — they were a picture of discipline and sincerity, listening attentively to the lecture and coming up with correct answers.
When Sharan asks whose responsibility was it to take a passenger safely home at night after the Metro stopped running and there were no buses, the drivers say in unison: “Us autowallahs”.
“How many of you have come to Delhi from outside?” This time more than half the people in the room raise their hands.
“And how many of you have daughters?” Again, more than half the hands go up.
Then the screen displays the crime figures against women in the Capital — and the figures seem to surprise the class of drivers who are of varied age.
“There are about 5 rapes every day in Delhi. What do you think is the reason?” Sharan asks again.
There is hushed silence in the room. Sharan’s colleague Smita Tewari Pant walks onto the trainers’ platform and asks the audience to answer in a no-nonsense manner.
“Silence on this question will not work, you have to answer.”
Then someone in the crowd says, loud enough for everyone else to hear, “Gandi Soch” (dirty mentality) as someone else adds, “Alcohol, too”. Pant immediately notes down both these reasons on the white board fixed next to the projector screen.
She then asks, “So, what is the solution?”
“We will have to change our thinking, our mindset,” answers another auto driver in the class.
Then Pant raises another issue that again stuns the class into silence. “A lot of times it is said that the dress of a woman is responsible for increasing the number rapes, but you must have heard of cases when fathers have raped their daughters. So, how can a dress be responsible for rape? Someone might even find a problem with what I am wearing. What I am trying to say here is no dress is appropriate or inappropriate”.
The whole class seemed to agree, apart from a few non-conformist whispers. A few of them sitting in the last row merrily doze off.
During the next half hour’s interactive session, the trainers advise the auto drivers not to put up stickers with indecent slogans and pictures of film actresses. They are also apprised of what constitutes sexual harassment and the new laws dealing with it.
“But what if I am a fan of a film actress?” a driver carefully whispers, as Pant speaks.
We put the question to Pant for an answer.
“Such posters (those of film actresses) signify the objectification of women. If someone is a fan, he can put up the heroine’s picture at home. Auto is a public space, a public vehicle; the idea is to make autos a safe mode of transport for women,” Pant clarifies.
Asked about the training, Sonu Singh, a driver in the class, said,“Women safety has been my top priority. More than anything else, I found the lessons regarding first aid very useful.”
We later ask Umesh Kumar — sitting in the last row — what he thought about the image of auto drivers in the city. “Very bad. They are looked down upon. And they have only themselves to blame for the sorry state of affairs. Quite a lot of them do not follow rules and regulations. Alcoholism is also a big problem,” he promptly says.
Pant is a no-nonsense woman during the class, but empathises with the drivers.
“Acceptance of these classes was very low in the beginning. It is much better now. Initially, they would ask us, why only auto drivers are being picked for training in gender sensitisation,” she said.
She said that while most complaints against such drivers are true, the public often disregards the fact that the autowallahs too are sometimes treated badly by their passengers. “They have to deal with a lot of tricky situations, like public display of affection by couples sitting in their auto,” she says.
Monica Kumar, a clinical psychologist and the founder of Manas Foundation, believes that the auto drivers are happy that someone is talking to them finally.
Asked about the fact that the behaviour of most such drivers had failed to change even after a year of holding such sensitisation classes, she said: “If we can bring out change in even two out of every 10 drivers who attend the classes with us, we will have achieved our objective. It is a long-term process. We will soon start similar classes for the city’s taxi drivers.”
Towards the conclusion of the training, a phone number is displayed on the projector screen — that of Auto Sahara — a helpline started by Manas Foundation for auto drivers to share their problems.
That is the only time when everyone in the class fish out their pen and diaries. “It is a follow up resource; in fact a lot of them call to share their personal problems. But the helpline serves its purpose. Many drivers call us with issues regarding women safety and their run-in with the traffic police,” said Pant.
At the conclusion of the class, the drivers are given a certificate of attendance and a booklet each, which expanded on the lessons taught in class. It has statements like, “If men and boys are powerful, they should help others. Real men don’t indulge in violence — they stop it”. The drivers are also given badges, and stickers bearing the slogan “I do not disrespect women nor do I allow others to do so.”
They make their way to the exit leafing through their booklet.