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13Dec2016

Pink Autos: Women Driven Auto Rickshaw Services In India

The growing trend of pink autos – women driven auto rickshaw services in India – is facing both misogyny and support from men and women around the country. Pallavi Bhattacharya reports. 

It’s late at night. You’re returning home from work. The streets are almost empty. You hail the only auto rickshaw that you see on the streets.

The auto rickshaw driver slyly shifts his rear view mirror towards you. Despite, you requesting him not to smoke, he refuses to throw away his cigarette.

His breath smells of alcohol when he enquires in a rough voice, “Madam, what do you mean by coming home so late at night, or are you off to another party from here? Were you at a disc drinking? How do your husband and in-laws allow this? Or are you divorced? Did your parents not teach you any values? What kind of clothes are you wearing anyway?”

The regressive-minded and lecherous auto rickshaw driver, may be driving precariously through the streets and as there is no other transport in sight, you may be anxious as to whether you’ll be reaching home safely. He may be refusing to pull over.

If you’ve ever been in a situation like this, you must have wished that you could have been driven home by a woman driver. There are many male drivers who behave cordially with women passengers and always ferry them to safety, however there are also abusive drivers who may also put your safety at risk.

Auto rickshaws driven by women are already plying in Indore, Ranchi, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon.

In 2016, an announcement was made that women driven auto rickshaws would be introduced in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, the Thane District, the Palgarh District, Kalyan, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur and Aurangabad.

548 auto rickshaw permits were issued for women drivers in Maharashtra, which included 465 from Mumbai. Five percent of auto permits in Maharashtra has been reserved for women.

Enduring Misogyny Towards Women Autorickshaw Drivers

Women drivers have had to face misogyny, and female auto drivers across the country have had to combat chauvinism. On asking what they thought about women driving autos, I met a handful of men and women, who passed snide remarks.

A woman whose thought process is laced with internalized misogyny commented, “How can women drive autos? Isn’t it after all a man’s job? Women aren’t good drivers. More so, driving in the sun will tan their skin.”

A woman who echoed her erroneous views remarked, “It seems a bit strange that women will drive auto rickshaws. Men, I believe, are endowed with more physical prowess and perhaps are more naturally equipped to take upon themselves such rough jobs such as bus and auto driving.”

A man, who seemed to feel insecure that women are taking up a profession which traditional India thought was only for men, said, “If women are passionately wanting to take up a man’s role, let men wear sarees like them and live at home, whereas women can roam about in shirt and trousers the whole night.”

A man who was similarly against women being on par with women on the professional front said, “Women joining the workforce is causing unhappiness in families. Working women are the causes of the rising divorce rate, more so if they take up unconventional careers like auto driving, which are meant for men.”

Another chauvinistic man with poor logical reasoning said, “Women are responsible for their own personal safety. They are to blame if they get attacked. So, this women’s driven auto system isn’t going to reduce crimes against women in any way.”

A man with a similar logical fallacy said, “I am vehemently against women auto rickshaw drivers being given safety alarms and self defense equipment during night shifts, as it’ll add fuel to fire to the misconception that no man can be trusted.”

Eshita Mandal, a psychologist from Mumbai, speaking on the bias women auto rickshaw drivers face says, “The moment people see a lady driver out there on the road, they invariably think that the traffic jam or an accident is because of her. When a woman is driving a plane, they wonder if it’ll reach the destination safely. Hats off to women auto rickshaw drivers who have all the courage to step into what was considered a man’s world before.”

Support For Women Autorickshaw Drivers

Most people I talked to, were happy that women would be seen behind the wheels in auto rickshaws.

Apala Bhattacharya, a writer in Mumbai says, “The introduction of auto service with women drivers will take care of two main issues: it’ll be conducive towards ensuring the safety of women commuters and will serve as a livelihood option for women who don’t have high level of education or a college degree. Often these women are engaged in manual labour which involves long and arduous hours of work with low pay. Driving an auto rickshaw will serve as a higher source of income and also flexible hours of work which will be helpful for them to take care of their families as well. This will also open a new avenue of work in a currently male dominated category of work and broaden the choices of women towards a means of livelihood.”

Puripriya Kundu, Guest Lecturer in a university in Kolkata, is yet to avail of this service in her city. Nevertheless she is excited about seeing women earning a living by driving auto rickshaws.

She says, “All genders- men, women and the transgender have the right to drive auto rickshaws. It’s patriarchal to prevent women from driving an auto rickshaw. Driving an auto rickshaw makes a woman her own boss, which is far better than bearing the servitude of many blue collared jobs that women who don’t have higher levels of education have to do. For instance rather than work as a domestic helper in homes, many women may feel that driving an auto rickshaw is a far empowering job.”

She feels that the quota for women drivers may help at the teething phase. Puripriya reasons, “Reservations may be good in the initial stage wherein women are trying to get a foothold in an otherwise male dominated profession.”

Whereas she feels that availing of an auto rickshaw driven by a woman will make travelling at night safe for women passengers, she is also concerned about the safety of the women drivers who ply vehicles at night.

She reasons, “It’s tough for women to restrict themselves to an early evening curfew as they may be having professional and personal commitments. If women have the opportunity to avail of auto rickshaws driven by women at night, then their lives will be less restricted. However the question here is, will women drivers who drive late at night be safe? I feel that women auto rickshaw drivers should form their own union, so that their problems are addressed through it.”

Anil Merani, a journalist and PR from Mumbai says regarding issues of safety of women driving auto rickshaws at night, “I quite welcome this service as I feel that women deserve equal opportunities in livelihood. Why deprive them in this regard? My only concern is whether women auto rickshaw drivers will be safe during late night shifts. Women drivers need to be provided means and mechanisms ensuring their safety if they decide to drive at night. Maybe, the Regional Transport Office (RTO) could test for two weeks if women auto rickshaw drivers are safe at night and make it into a norm if it’s found to be successful.”

Anil feels that women may be cautious while driving, “Thoughts that women cannot drive well were there in the past in India but things are changing now. I’ve often seen women drivers drive more safely than men.”

Many male auto rickshaw drivers I spoke to hailed the fact that more women will drive auto rickshaws. Bansidar Dube, an autowallah in Vasai, feels that women will make excellent auto rickshaw drivers.

He says, “Women have excelled as astronauts and pilots, auto driving is a piece of cake in comparison. Ladies have zoomed vehicles through the sky and space, so shouldn’t they be able to operate an automobile which runs on the ground well?”

He however expresses concern over the possibility that some women may not drive their own vehicles, “I’m very glad that women are being handed auto rickshaw permits. However I’ll be saddened if they rent out their vehicle to a male driver as it’ll completely defeat the purpose of this mission.”

Nitai Naskar, an auto rickshaw driver in Kolkata, is also in support of women earning a living through auto rickshaw driving. He says, “I think it’s a very good idea that auto rickshaws driven by women are being introduced in Mumbai. I’d be glad if the same is done in Kolkata as well. Women have just as much right to earn their living through auto rickshaw driving just as much as men do. I will not be upset if seats are reserved for women auto rickshaw drivers as they have the right to financial independence. I will never restrict any woman in the family from driving an auto rickshaw if they wish to.”

He is however worried about the problems that women drivers in a male dominated work sphere like this usually face. He observes, “I am however concerned about the fact that women auto rickshaw drivers may be eve teased, which is a chauvinistic means of trying to dissuade women from driving auto rickshaws. More male auto rickshaw drivers should come out in support of women driving auto rickshaws.”

An auto rickshaw driver who drives his vehicle in the outskirts of Mumbai, says on the request of anonymity, “Because of safety issues, a woman auto rickshaw driver was unable to continue drives to long distance destinations at night and now just plies her vehicle locally.”

Prospective Lady Auto Rickshaw Drivers Speak Up

Rupali Sutar, whose father drives an auto rickshaw, would also like to drive one. She, who has studied till Class 10, is now is a receptionist in a garment store in a mall. She has previously worked as a beautician in a beauty parlour and in the housekeeping department of a call centre.

She knows that driving an auto rickshaw is more earning than any of these professions, and people she knows are making Rs 1000 per day by driving an auto rickshaw. She is separated from her husband and has a small son. Her husband, according to her, doesn’t provide adequately for both of them. She wishes to earn well to ensure good education and a comfortable bringing up for her child.

She says, “To keep myself safe while driving at night, I plan to carry self defense equipment. I wish to work late at night as I want to help women who are travelling alone. My father owns two auto rickshaws, he drives one himself and has rented out another vehicle to someone else. I will drive the auto rickshaw which is now being rented out and thereby also be able to save the family expenditure which goes into paying the driver. My family is encouraging me greatly in this venture.”

One Woman Auto Rickshaw Driver’s Personal Experience

Anita Kudtarkar, the first woman auto rickshaw driver from Mumbai, interestingly hails from an orthodox village in Karnataka. Her father had a hotel and her mother was a homemaker. In her village school, there were classes for girls only till Class 10. The village’s norm was not to send their daughters out of the village for higher education as it was considered unsafe.

Anita was married off a year after she completed school. The family she married into wasn’t so well off. Her husband was engaged in fitting appliances. She would do various kinds of jobs including tailoring. Ultimately, she decided to drive an auto rickshaw.

Anita says, “Women can operate any type of vehicle. I decided that I’ll do something that no woman has done before in Mumbai, so I became an auto rickshaw driver.” An auto rickshaw cost Rs 85,000 in 2002. Anita didn’t have the money. Her friend who was a retired school principal lent her Rs 25,000. She took a bank loan of Rs 60,000.

Initially there was reluctance to teach her driving, as a misogynistic belief prevailed that women can’t drive well. Once Anita found a trainer she learned driving an auto rickshaw in just eight days. She however practiced on her own for another month before she started taking customers, as she was being cautious.

Male drivers raised eyebrows on seeing a lady with an auto rickshaw. A chauvinistic auto rickshaw driver threw her a challenge, “Women should cook and take care of their homes. Driving isn’t for women. Just ride your auto rickshaw up to 25 meters in front of me. If you can do so then I’ll give up my license.”

Anita not only completed that with élan but went on to drive for many kilometers. Anita told him, “Just look at how many miles I’ve really covered.” Forced to eat the humble pie, he sheepishly said, “Well, I was simply joking.” Anita retorted, “Please don’t joke about women in this manner ever again in your life time.”

When Anita started driving an auto rickshaw professionally, she faced further prejudice. “Initially some people were hesitant to board my vehicle as they had never seen a woman driving an auto rickshaw ever in their lifetime. They wondered if she had a valid license.” Gradually both genders boarded her automobile without inhibitions.

Anita noticed that women were especially comfortable to ride in her vehicle. She however imposed on herself a 7 pm curfew of driving an auto rickshaw. The reason was two-fold. She had to prepare supper for her family and attend to household chores. Second, she felt that it would be unsafe to drive at night as she wasn’t sure at to what kind of passengers would hike a ride.

Anita refutes those who claim that driving auto rickshaw is a rough sport for women saying, “Driving it may seem rough when you’re a novice but once you know how to drive the vehicle, it’s a lovely and smooth run.”

Anita brings to our notice that before the 5% reservation norm, women were hesitant of coming forward to drive an auto rickshaw. This was because as they didn’t see women drive one, they thought that it was just a man’s job or women weren’t permitted to drive one.

She further draws our attention to the fact that despite the fact that 50 women were previously given free training to drive an auto by the Mahanagar Palika in the Vasai – Virar region, not one of those women drove an auto rickshaw.

She’s happy regarding this reservation. Simultaneously she brings to our notice that this reservation is yet to fill up as many women are still not ready to do this job. She feels that the reservation quota may be expanded only after this reservation is completely filled up.

Women commuters across India are happy with this auto rickshaw service but are upset that there are just a few of them. We hope that the supply of women driven auto rickshaws is increased, to meet the increasing demand of the same.

Whereas women driven auto rickshaws are painted pink in other cities, they are to be painted orange in Maharashtra. Women auto rickshaw drivers in Maharashtra however are against their vehicles being painted in a colour which distinguishes their automobiles from those being driven by men.

An auto rickshaw driver said that the orange colour may incite stalkers to follow their vehicles at night, which will put both the driver and passengers in jeopardy. We can only hope that women come forward in large numbers to procure licenses to drive auto rickshaws; and that men make their work environment more comfortable.

Image source: Shashank Anand

Watch the video from MTV Sunsilk Angels of Rock featuring women auto drivers.

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