Women tak­ing the wheel in In­dia to drive their own des­tinies

By train­ing and hir­ing only fe­male chauf­feurs, a taxi ser­vice in Mum­bai pro­vides a safe ser­vice for women


The traf­fic light turns green and Rupa Swali pulls out onto the Western Ex­press High­way in Mum­bai, care­ful to avoid the swarm of mo­tor­bikes and au­torick­shaws zip­ping past. Sud­denly an un­ruly bus runs the light in the other di­rec­tion and ca­reens straight to­wards her, lay­ing on its horn. Swali is used to this and slams her breaks just in time, then glances at the pas­sen­ger in the back seat to check for a re­ac­tion. For­tu­nately, the woman seems ab­sorbed in her iPhone and un­aware of the dan­ger just averted.

Nav­i­gat­ing the jun­gle of Mum­bai’s traf­fic has be­come sec­ond na­ture for Swali, who drives a taxi for a liv­ing. But un­til about four years ago, she had never sat in a car, let alone driven one.

That was when she de­cided to leave her phys­i­cally abu­sive hus­band of 19 years. Even though she was born and brought up in Mum­bai, In­dia’s com­mer­cial cap­i­tal, she was un­skilled and un­sure of how to earn a liv­ing. She felt lonely, scared and help­less. To top it off, she had a teenage daugh­ter to care for.

“I wanted a job that would pro­vide me with dig­nity along with fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity,” she said.

At around the same time, a man­age­ment pro­fes­sional named Preeti Sharma Menon was look­ing to set up an or­ga­ni­za­tion that would help women be­come sel­f­re­liant. Of the nearly six mil­lion women liv­ing in this city, about half are daily wage earn­ers liv­ing on the streets or in tiny shanties.

Menon cre­ated Vi­ira Cabs (“Vi­ira” means coura­geous woman) in June 2011 to pro­vide sus- tained, dig­ni­fied em­ploy­ment to un­der­priv­i­leged women. She had launched the Vi­ira Mo­tor Train­ing Pro­gram six months ear­lier; Swali was one of the first batch of 200 fe­male driv­ers it taught to drive. Af­ter a rig­or­ous six-month train­ing pro­gram, free of charge, 80 earned their li­censes. Sev­eral have driven for Vi­ira Cabs ever since. (The train­ing pro­gram has since been re­duced to 12 weeks.)

To­day, Vi­ira Cabs has a fleet of 16 eco-friendly cabs and about 20 fe­male driv­ers who earn an av­er­age of 15,000 ru­pees a month (US$240), work­ing day and night shifts. Even though there are a few other women-driv­ers-only taxi ser­vices in the coun­try, Vi­ira is the only one that pro­vides com­pre­hen­sive train­ing, in­clud­ing groom­ing, eti­quette and self de­fense. Ev­ery driver is equipped with pep­per spray and a GPS sys­tem with panic alerts.

The ser­vice pro­vides more than just skills and jobs. In a coun­try where vi­o­lence against women is preva­lent, it pro­vides a source of com­fort for fe­male pas­sen­gers. Ac­cord­ing to the gov­ern­ment, a woman is raped ev­ery 20 min­utes in In­dia. And these are just the re­ported fig­ures.

In­dia cat­a­pulted to in­famy in De­cem­ber 2012 af­ter the bru­tal gang rape of a stu­dent in a mov­ing bus in Delhi. She later died of her in­juries. Two years later, a 27-year-old ex­ec­u­tive was al­legedly raped by an Uber driver in New Delhi; the trial is on­go­ing.

“Given the back­ground of women’s safety in the coun­try, I think a woman-driv­ers-only cab ser­vice brought re­lief to many women who com­mute alone, es­pe­cially at night,” said Menon.

Her in­stincts were right. Vi­ira has hun­dreds of loyal cus­tomers, such as Re­vati Sharma, 32, who lives in a sub­urb of Mum­bai. “My par­ents are in­creas­ingly para­noid about me trav­el­ing alone to work,” she said. “But I work in an ad­ver- tis­ing agency where there are no set hours. When I re­turned at 3 in the morn­ing I used to see my mother wait­ing anx­iously for me at the door. Now I call Vi­ira when I have to re­turn from late nights. And, frankly, I am also much more re­laxed when a woman is driv­ing. I can doze off to sleep.”

Se­nior cit­i­zens and dif­fer­entlyabled peo­ple are also a large per­cent­age of Vi­ira’s cus­tomers, claim­ing that fe­male driv­ers are more thought­ful, help­ing them in and out of the cars.

Once the least re­spected mem­bers of their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties, these women have now be­come among the most im­por­tant. Their in­come is help­ing to fund their chil­dren’s ed­u­ca­tion; Swali’s daugh­ter is now a vet­eri­nary doc­tor. The driv­ers keep the cars with them, and when Swali drives her taxi into the semi-slum where she lives, her neigh­bors treat her like a celebrity.

But Menon said there are chal- lenges as well, such as the cost of train­ing and the high rate of at­tri­tion. “The women we em­ploy come from low- in­come back­grounds. Most of them are the pri­mary care­givers in their fam­i­lies, so when­ever there is an ill­ness or death in the fam­ily, they are the first to quit their jobs.” While look­ing for other in­vestors, Menon is keep­ing the op­er­a­tion afloat with her own money. She might have to shut it down de­spite the ev­i­dence that it is sorely needed. Al­ready, she feels bad that she has to turn cus­tomers away. “There is more de­mand than we can meet,” she said.

Ritesh Ut­tam­chan­dani

Vi­ira Cabs is a taxi ser­vice for women, by women based in Mum­bai, In­dia.

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