x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Wheels are turning with New Delhi’s women taxi drivers

Female taxi drivers in New Delhi are providing safe rides to female passengers and, in the process, revolutionising the face of transport.

Chandni, 23, is one of the drivers for Sakha, a New Delhi-based company that trains women to drive and counsels them on their rights. Amrit Dhillon
Chandni, 23, is one of the drivers for Sakha, a New Delhi-based company that trains women to drive and counsels them on their rights. Amrit Dhillon

Standing well short of five feet, Kushi Prajapati is barely taller than the car she drives, but the 23-year-old has stormed a male bastion – the Indian taxi service – by becoming a taxi driver serving only women passengers, although men can use it if they’re accompanied by a woman.

It’s exactly the kind of initiative that New Delhi, still haunted by the horror of last December’s gang rape, needs: women taxi drivers transporting women passengers who want a safe ride and, in the process, revolutionising the face of transport. The prices at the company, Sakha, are competitive: 600 rupees (Dh35) for four hours, while most other taxi services charge 700 rupees.

Importantly, the driver gets a much-needed livelihood. Prajapati’s monthly salary of 13,000 to 14,000 rupees has given her family a level of comfort that was hitherto unimaginable.

For Nayantara Janardhan, the chief operating officer of Sakha, seeing the change in the women is the greatest satisfaction. “One woman said that if she died in a road accident, no one would know who she was. With her driving licence, she gained an identity and became a ‘visible citizen’,” says Janardhan.

Almost all of Sakha’s recruits are from poor families, mostly from the slums in and around Kalkaji, a crowded south Delhi neighbourhood where Sakha operates.

Besides training them to drive, Sakha counsels them about their rights. Some women who have worked for the cab service have gathered up the courage to walk out of abusive relationships or leave abusive or alcoholic spouses.

For 23-year-old Chandni, for example, the experience has altered her outlook. “I used to think a woman had to take violence from a man, but now I realise it is wrong and she should not tolerate it,” she says.

One of her high points was driving the Bollywood star Aamir Khan, who is usually accompanied by women staff members, when he was in New Delhi.

For the garment exporter Seema Mathai, who commutes extensively, the service is a regular feature of her life. “I feel more comfortable when some man isn’t leering at me through the rear-view mirror. I use the women taxi service all the time, not just at night,” she says.

But for some women, the idea of a woman driver does not work.

“I’m worried about my safety and having a vulnerable woman driving me does nothing to increase my sense of security. I’ve used them during the day but I wouldn’t use them at night,” says the television journalist Rashmi Jain.

Chandni, who’s fighting for her place in a male-dominated environment, has developed a thick skin to the unkind comments and stares she receives from men. “I feel like a new animal in a zoo. Sometimes the men crowd around my car when I’m parking,” she says.

Her next ambition is to become the first female bus driver in the city. Sakha is in talks with the Delhi government to make this happen. It is also exploring the possibility of training women to become car mechanics. Janardhan says it is high time the Delhi Metro had a woman driver.

“For women to be safe in public, you need more women in public spaces – women police officers, bus drivers, bus conductors, Metro drivers, petrol-pump attendants. With more women out there, the whole dynamic changes,” she says.

For women in India, safety is a major preoccupation. In 2010, a government study found that two out of every three women in the city had “faced some form of sexual harassment” in the previous year. The New Delhi-based Azad Foundation, which aims to empower women, is in partnership with Sakha and currently operates in 25 slums in New Delhi.

As for Sakha, after two training centres in the capital, it has opened a third in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and will open one in Calcutta next year.

“We aren’t focused on having a large fleet of cars. What is more important is to establish the role of women in public transport,” says Janardhan.