The entire passenger-conductor dynamics change when women are the bus conductors

Buses as a means of public transport in Delhi constitute a space inhabited largely by men. Many women do travel by Delhi Transport Corporation buses, but overall, there appear to be more male passengers. The bus conductors and drivers are also unfailingly men; therefore I was pleasantly surprised when I recently encountered Kavita Gehlaut, a woman bus conductor in one of DTC's new low floor buses.

I realised that she was the bus conductor when she called out to me to purchase my ticket. Dressed in a pink salwar kameez, a casually tied ponytail and spectacles, it was Kavita's fourth day at work and she was holding a notebook to familiarise herself with the various bus stops and the corresponding fare to be charged.

Kavita says, “DTC was the first place I applied to when I began looking for a job. My mother, Lakshmi Devi, works in the DTC and asked me to apply here.”

“Thirty years ago, she too was a conductor,” she adds with a beam.

A mother of two, Kavita had to look for a job when her husband's cycle-rickshaw business stopped doing well. There were objections initially from her husband and in-laws who were worried about the kind of passengers she would encounter and how they might behave. Now it is her husband who sends the children to school after she leaves for work at 6-30 a.m. She is usually home by 4 p.m.

“I convinced them all by saying it is a secure government job and in fact it is turning out to be all right,” Kavita says.

The entire passenger-conductor dynamics of the bus seemed to have changed with a woman conductor. Kavita courteously asked an elderly man who was standing to take a seat. Women passengers buying their tickets nodded and smiled at her. Yet, Kavita was firm in dealing with passengers who were procrastinating about purchasing their tickets.

Kavita feels that passengers are usually a decent lot. “The educated ones are happy to see me. But there are others who behave rudely. I try to deal with them patiently. We were told how to deal with difficult passengers in our training period.”

Kavita could not complete her graduation from Bhagini Nivedita College because her in-laws did not see the point of her studying further.

However, she was permitted to work when economic necessities prevailed, and is happy with the sense of independence it is giving her.

DTC spokesperson Sharat Kumar says: “Ever since DTC's low floor buses were introduced a few years ago, the number of women conductors has greatly increased and is now about 500. Prior to the introduction of these buses, there were very few women conductors, maybe less than a hundred, and they were employed usually on ‘compassionate grounds'. Now these jobs are more in demand by women. They are employed on an annual contract basis and earn about Rs. 10,000 per month.”

Maternity leave, a weekly holiday, choice of shift timings, provident fund and medical facilities are some of the job entitlements for women bus conductors.

When more women occupy positions of authority in public spaces, it can normalize their participation in such spaces, can lead to increased acceptance of women as equal members at all levels of the workforce and also improve male female equations in public spheres. There is a need for more women like Kavita and more households like hers which can come around to supporting the decision of a woman to earn, whether the decision stems from choice or economic necessity.

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