In Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008), Deepika Padukone drives a taxi in Australia to support herself and fund her education. She works night shifts, takes in male passengers and when Ranbir Kapoor - passenger-turned-beau - asks her whether she is scared to drive strangers at odd hours, mentions the hockey stick with which she protects herself from potential harassers. Of course, Padukone does not really have to use it and even meets Mr Right on the road and they live happily ever after. Perhaps that's the way things work in a reel romance, or maybe women taxi drivers in the developed world have an easier time of it. The drive is definitely not as smooth in the national capital.
Last month, Meru introduced a women's cab service in the National Capital Region titled Meru Eve. Ola too has roped in a few women taxi drivers for its recently-launched Ola Pink. While attempts to contact the Meru spokesperson failed, a blog post on the Meru website says, "With strong support of the Delhi Police, this brand new cab service promises to bring safe, reliable and professional transport to women - driven by women."
The move comes months after a woman passenger was raped by a Uber cab driver in Delhi. As for Ola, their service is still at the testing phase. "Ola Pink is in beta mode. We are developing a sustainable model for women drivers to get on to the platform and grow as entrepreneurs themselves. Ola Pink is in beta mode in six cities, Bangalore, Pune, Chennai, Delhi, Ahmedabad and Hyderabad," a spokesperson says.
This is not the first time women have taken to driving taxis in India. Kerala introduced She Taxis last year, Mumbai has Viira and Priyadarshani and even taxi services in Delhi, GCabs for example, have had women drivers. However, this is probably the first time that women drivers are being employed by a multi-city taxi service. In Delhi, Azad Foundation launched Sakha cabs for women in 2009 to provide them with safe transport solutions.
"The idea was to give these women a livelihood with dignity and also break the mould," says Deepali Bhardwaj, COO, Sakha. Since its inception Sakha has trained approximately 300 women taxi drivers. Many of the women drivers at Meru began with Sakha.
Having women-driven taxis is a step towards providing safe transport solutions for women commuters, and towards women's empowerment. However, women drivers routinely have to battle gender bias on the roads and at taxi stands. "The first day at the Meru taxi stand, male drivers kept staring at me. Many asked me repeatedly about the rates that we were being offered," says a driver on condition of anonymity.
Barbs about driving skills are common. "Male drivers often say women can't drive, they can't put a car in reverse," Shivani laughs. She has been a taxi driver in Delhi for four years. While it is impossible to address the bias of every male driver on the road, companies employing women drivers should play a more active role in providing a balanced work culture. "When you enter a non-traditional sector, there will be reaction, especially from the men. It is the responsibility of the company to sensitise its male drivers on how to behave with women colleagues. Also, employing women drivers shouldn't be a symbolic gesture. Women drivers will not be a target of attention once we have more of them on the roads," says Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research.
It doesn't end with bias or barbs. Women drivers also face active harassment. Besides trailing them on the road, male drivers often honk at them unnecessarily and make crude gestures. "One can't even be sure of passengers. Most of us take in only women passengers. Men are allowed if they are accompanied by women. But not all women can be trusted," says one driver. "As drivers we have to pick up passengers from unfamiliar areas every day. We are aware of the risks, but it's part of the job," she adds.
Most of the drivers are trained in self defence - a skill that will become even more useful if ever Meru allows its women drivers to ply their vehicles beyond 9pm, their current deadline. A blog post on the company's website says: "The cab itself is equipped with a 'Himmat' app, panic buzzer, pepper sprays, speed dial and helpline numbers. The idea is to ensure safety for both the passenger(s) and the driver." Help, though, may take some time to arrive. As Radha discovered a few months ago. "I was being followed. I called the police control room and they told me to approach the nearest police booth but there were none in the vicinity," she remembers. Also, since law enforcers too belong to the same overwhelmingly patriarchal society and haven't been through any gender sensitisation courses that could allow them to understand their own failings, they often exhibit the same biases.
"Last week, a traffic constable in Gurgaon started harassing me when I took a wrong turn. He asked to see my license. But it didn't stop with that. He even told the passenger that she should warn drivers against wrong driving practices," says Ruksana, whose earnings as a taxi driver help support her three children. "Other cops make sexist remarks like, 'I am letting you go because you are a woman'," she fumes. The drivers also need to check the legal status of a company before joining it to avoid being involved in needless legalities. "No app-based taxi service has the permission to ply here," says Anil Shukla, joint commissioner (Traffic) Delhi Police.
This includes Ola Pink that relies on app-based booking. "We are sensitive to the safety of women drivers, but the issue is yet to gain critical mass in India. The police needs to be informed of the number of women drivers, the routes they take and their working hours. Taxi companies need to inform us of safety norms being followed," says Shukla. For now, like Deepika in Bachna Ae Haseeno, self reliance might be the best bet for these women drivers.
Jyoti Gupta, 40 New Delhi
I WANT TO WORK NIGHT SHIFTS TO HELP WOMEN
Jyoti tried everything from working as a beautician to delivering lunch boxes to offices, with varying degrees of success, before learning to drive at Sakha, four years ago. After her training and working three years at Sakha, she worked independently and with other cab services, before being inducted by Meru. Being on the road is not easy for a woman driver.
"Once, authorities at a school I had approached said some people had a problem trusting a woman driver with the children," she says. Harassment on the roads is also not uncommon. "This was before I joined Meru. I was returning from Uttam Nagar one night when a male driver in a Scorpio started following me. I did call the police helpline, but before they could reach me, managed to give him the slip myself. It is important for women to not lose their minds in such a situation," she says. Jyoti's earnings have helped her put her son in engineering college and she hopes to make her daughter, a class XII student, an air hostess.
"I want Meru to allow us to also work night shifts. It would help women commuters," she says.
Shari MS, 31 Thiruvananthapuram
FOR ME, IT OPENED A DIFFERENT WORLD
Initially, Shari MS dreaded the taunts and cat calls but she now feels she is doing a job like any other. A college dropout who started driving a taxi a year-and-a-half years ago, Shari makes about Rs 15,000 a month, after paying her car loan of Rs 10,700. Driving has always been a passion and she got her driving licence at the age of 21. And so, once the Kerala government introduced She Taxis, she was ready to take the wheel. "It opened a different world for me. Besides economic stability it gives us the opportunity to interact with different people. I really feel I am empowered," says Shari, who has a six-year-old daughter. Though some members of her family were unhappy with her choice of work, her husband, an electrician, stood by her. She loves to go for long-distance drives and doesn't mind night duty either. Foreign passengers are her favourite. "They are well mannered and we learn a lot from them," she says. "Once you take up the challenge you have to face it. Every job has an element of risk. We have been trained to avoid messy situations," she says. The She Taxi control room tracks all taxies fitted with GPS and crosschecks details of passengers before accepting bookings. It also arranges safe stays for women drivers for the night.
(As told to Ramesh Babu)
B Jayalakshmi, 33 Chennai
I HAVE NO PROBLEMS DRIVING MEN EITHER
Her love for driving and adventure made B Jayalakshmi, a former professional tailor, learn to drive and then start plying a taxi. She is very happy with her decision. Attached to Hotel Savera's private cab service initially intended only for their women guests, Jayalakshmi now also drives male patrons. It all started when the NGO Duchess Helping Hands conceptualised a taxi service for women by women and trained a few drivers. Jayalakshmi was one of the three women who were trained. She joined the hotel as a valet and was then given the opportunity to get into the taxi business herself.
The NGO helped with the down payment for the vehicle and paid the first three EMIs. Since she and her taxi are attaches to the hotel Jayalakshmi gets assured business. And since all the guests she picks up are from the hotel or are hotel guests, her own safety is taken care of.
On average, Jayalakshmi earns between Rs 35,000 and Rs 40, 000 a month. While her experience on the road has been largely positive, there have been incidents of bias and aggression by male drivers. "But it is part of the profession," Jayalakshmi says with a shrug.
(As told to KV Lakshmana)
Vaishali Pradeep Shewade, 34 Mumbai
NO HARASSMENT IN FOUR YEARS
Finding someone to help with directions and locating public toilets, which are few and far between, are the biggest issues that Vaishali Shewade faces when she's on the road late at night. Otherwise, her training with Viira Cab Services has taught her how to drive, how to interface with customers, even how to handle basic auto checks and fix minor mechanical problems. "In four years, I have never faced harassment or trouble from passengers or other male drivers," she says. "Anyway, our office has trained us in martial arts and even given us chilly spray, just in case."
Shewade does night shifts, as per the requirements of the company, and has driven customers as far as Pune (about 150 km) and Nashik (about 165 km).
Driving is, in fact, her dream job.
A single mother who has been supporting ageing parents and two children ever since her husband left her a decade ago, Shewade switched to driving for Viira from a job gluing pages together at a printing press. "The money is better. I get more respect," she says. "My father is so proud; he's always mentioning my job to friends and relatives." Initially, nobody in her family knew she was learning to drive, Shewade says, smiling. "I used to go to the training in the morning and then to the printing press to work. I wanted to surprise them."
One day, Shewade's father, a retired municipal worker, wanted to go out and Vaishali drove the cab around to the house. "You should have seen his face when he saw me in the driver's seat," she says, laughing.
If she has faced criticism, it has been from distant relatives who have questioned her for working late hours and driving around at night. "I don't care what they say or think," she says. "It is I who have to look after my family. And I know I am doing nothing wrong." Viira Cab Services is a 24/7 taxi service that employs only women drivers. It is one of two such outfits in Mumbai. The other is Priyadarshani.
(As told to Pawan Sharma)
*Names of taxi drivers have been changed