When Govindammal, a resident of Chennai, took up driving auto-rickshaw 26 years ago, it was the toughest yet most empowering decision of her life. At 62, she is still on the job and what drives her the most is the sense of independence that her profession offers.
“I feel quite independent even in my sixties. I don’t have to depend on anyone and driving makes me feel I can do anything,” she says.
While Govindammal wished more women took up the profession, be it driving an autorickshaw, a bus or a lorry, several governments have started taking baby steps in this regard, enabling women to carve a niche in professions, traditionally dominated by men. In a recent move, the Maharashtra government, as part of a pilot project, has selected 163 tribal women who will be trained in driving heavy vehicles and later inducted as bus drivers.
It is the first time the state transport corporation is inducting young tribal women as bus drivers. “We come up with new programmes for tribal youth every year. In a first, we have selected tribal women for the training programme this year. They have already acquired driving license for light motor vehicles and now will be trained to drive heavy vehicles for a year,” says Abijith Bhosle, PRO, MSRTC (Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation).
Bhosle says the state government will ensure that the drivers are paid on par with their male colleagues, avail sanitation facilities at bus depots and get maternal benefits. Their hours will be scheduled during the day.
In a similar move, the Kerala government cleared the appointment of women drivers in public sector offices on August 22. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the decision was taken to ensure gender equality in all walks of society. The Karnataka government too has been considering to grant 50 per cent reservation under KSRTC (Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation) for women that aimed at including more women in the workforce.
Women’s rights activists say such steps reflect the growing awareness for gender parity among the common man. “This is a very good move. It will financially empower women, which is very important. They’re are the breadwinners in several families and they need some job security. It is a very good initiative,” says Kavya Menon, women’s rights activist and a menstrual educator.
Kavya, however, says the only concern is lack of proper toilet facilities for women drivers. “Better toilet facilities are required at bus depots and the condition of public toilets must be improved. Better sanitation facilities must be provided and that has to become a part of policy now. It is not just important to create jobs. The jobs environment also has to be made friendly,” she adds.
Another concern she puts forth is the security of these women. “Even though we have women police stations, Sathiya helpline numbers and Nirbhaya funds, they have not been properly utilised. The government has to revisit these things and work on them,” she said.
“It has been six years since the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) (POSH) law has been implemented. It is comparatively a newer law. But, we have not been able to see positive changes because there is lack of knowledge and training. There is lack of awareness even in the government departments,” Kavya adds.
M Vasanthakumari, (60), India’s first woman bus driver, who hails from Kanyakumari, while lauding the induction of women drivers into public transport, says such initiatives will be fruitful if more women are recruited instead of token numbers.
Vasanthakumari, who took up the profession due to financial difficulties, had to battle male dominance in the initial days of her career. “When I applied for the post (1990), transport officials rejected me on the pretext that I wasn’t tall enough. They said I was 158 cm while my real height is 162. Later, I met then Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa with my grievance, following which I was appointed in 1993,” recounts Vasanthakumari.
Although Vasanthakumari says her male colleagues were friendly and cooperative — many of them would even want to drive the buses she drove — she was constantly harassed by her superiors and was never promoted in her entire career of 26 years.
“A lot of them don’t want women to come out and take up such professions. A lot of officers are jealous and they tried hard to get rid of me. But, I stood strong and faced pressure,” she said.
It was Vasanthakumari’s zeal and passion for driving that motivated her to overcome all odds and keep going. She, however, hopes that her successors don’t have to undergo the challenges she faced.
Apart from misogyny, the other problem women drivers face is lack of sanitation facilities.
“During my time, there weren’t separate toilets for women at bus depots. I had to find hospitals on the way when I needed to use the washroom.” Vasanthakumari says she would have been treated better and had fewer issues if there were more women in the profession. She expects the conditions to improve with more initiatives where women are encouraged to take driving as a promising profession.
The Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions 2019 bill proposed in the Lok Sabha states that ‘dignity and security’ of a woman worker is paramount. Working hours for women are between 6 am and 7 pm. However, beyond these timings, the employer should ensure the safety of a woman. The bill has received approval from the cabinet, but has not become an act yet. This rule will support more women who have the passion to drive.
After interacting with women conductors, activist Kavya says that they complain about existing hierarchy between female conductors and male drivers. With more women bus drivers getting recruited, she thinks that the gap can be bridged.
Being a woman driver means longer shifts and constant travel. For some it translates into losing out on family life. Govindammal says it is difficult for a woman driver to attend every wedding in the family or a festival. “I would take my auto and go for drives every morning. Even during Pongal and Diwali, I wouldn’t take off. I miss spending time with my children, but they never complain,” she says.
Govindammal, who initially sold flowers and rented out auto-rickshaws to other drivers, took up the profession when she faced loss in the business. She gradually learned driving on her visits to mechanic sheds. Despite all challenges, what kept her going was the feeling of independence that came with driving.