Necessity, but also love and respect on the road, drives most of the city’s women auto drivers, finds Esther Elias

P.G. Vijayakumari lost her husband 16 years ago. With two daughters to raise, and no extra income, she opened a roadside pettikada which sold snacks and tea. While initially profitable, her business dwindled over time, and she moved on to work at presses and bookshops. When she was 38, she bought an autorickshaw on a bank loan and earned her drivers’ license, both through a Perumbavoor panchayat scheme. It has been 10 years on the road now for Vijayakumari as one of the panchayat’s earliest female auto drivers, and she says, “If it weren’t for this auto, my daughters and I would be on the street, today.”

Women power

Regional Transport Officer B.J. Antony says there has been an increase in the number of women applying for permits to drive autos within Kochi recently. “There is a reduction in the vehicle tax that they pay and to encourage more women, we’ve reserved five per cent of the city permits we grant, for women,” he adds.

Necessity drives many of Kochi’s women auto drivers. Usha Madhusudhan took to the wheel 10 years ago for an income additional to her husbands’; Shiny Rajesh did so six months after her baby was born to make ends meet; and Lissie Varghese needed a mode of transport to take her physically challenged daughter to hospital regularly. While Lissie and Ambili Manoj procured their licenses and vehicles with help from Kudumbashree just a year back, Usha learnt to drive an auto 10 years ago while collecting waste in Perumbavoor with a handful of other women. Like Vijayakumari, she too took a loan for her auto and started her career by ferrying one child to school each morning. She now takes 60 children every day.

For most women auto drivers, their customers are primarily women and children. “Parents feel safe letting their children come with us. And the children themselves treat us like mothers,” says Usha. The flip side to running school trips though is being constantly on call from parents, says Vijayakumari. “It’s difficult to take any other trips then.” Shiny says a bulk of her rides come from women who require her to pick them up from their homes. “Most women take my number once they travel with me and they call when required,” she says. All of them do take male passengers as well, and they say they’ve been treated with respect for the most part.

Tough times

However, being a woman in public transport has not always been easy says Vijayakumari, with her years of experience. “I will never forget the time a drunk man entered the auto and misbehaved with me. I was driving on a lonely stretch of road and had to fight him off myself.” Usha adds,“There have been times when customers have walked away without paying, because I’m a woman. They know I can’t do anything in return.” As a precautionary measure, Shiny has placed a large mirror before her driver’s seat which reflects the passenger’s doings. “The minute I feel uncomfortable, I stop and ask them to leave,” she says.

To avoid such unpleasantries, most women begin their days early, close before dark and spend the time in between almost entirely on the road. “I leave the house by 6.30 a.m for my first school trip and I’m back by 6.30 in the evening, and I don’t stop for lunch or tea,” says Usha. Shiny keeps fewer hours, timing herself to start work only once her son is in school, and returning home by the time he is back. While managing family and work has been a balancing act, the tougher task was to convince family of the dignity in their chosen professions. “When I started out, my father-in-law told me that no woman has ever driven an auto in his house and that my doing so would bring him shame. Because the income has kept us going, they’ve reconciled to me now,” smiles Vijayakumari.

Support has come though, in abundance, from their male counterparts. “When I began driving, I was the only woman at my auto stand which had over 40 male drivers,” says Ambili. “They taught me everything I know now and treat me like one of them.” When Ambili recently met with an accident, it was the drivers at her stand who took her to hospital and helped her repair the auto. Many male auto drivers also double up as mechanics, and they therefore take care of the womens’ auto maintenance.

“I want more and more women to begin driving autos,” says Usha. Unlike popular perception, it is a safe profession and the steady income makes one independent, she adds. “I began this job hoping for at least Rs. 50 a day, and some times I’ve made over Rs. 1,000. There’s not a day when we’ve gone hungry,” says Shiny. But most importantly, Shiny says, it is the love and respect from the people on the road that keep her going. “So many of the women I drive around invite me home, and treat me like family. Because we’re women drivers, people notice us on the streets. If ever we’re in trouble, there will always be someone to help.”