BANGALORE : Autos driven by women and for women may hit the roads soon, with B-PAAC mooting the idea and the Transport Department taking it up. The project aims to make travelling safer for women and provide 5,000 women self-employment. But since many similar initiatives are struggling, auto driver unions are sceptical. Both Autorickshaw Drivers Union (ARDO) as well as Adarsh Auto and Taxi Drivers Union say they want to encourage women drivers but a similar endeavour in the late 1990s failed to take off.
"Between 1996 and '98, a scheme was launched that gave 120 women licences to drive autos. Most of them bought the autos cheap and handed them over to their husbands or other male family members," says ARDU secretary Rudramurthy.
According to M Manjunath, president of Adarsha Auto Union, the scheme was misused by auto and meter manufacturers. "They got women from the slums to sign papers, got autos and meters at subsidised prices and sold them at higher prices. There were 4,500 autos, so imagine how much profit they must have made."
However, since the autos will be coloured pink, he is more hopeful this time. "So men driving them can be caught easily," he said.
Manjunath was personally involved in teaching the women how to drive last time, though hardly any of whom have stuck on. He would be happy to train them this time as well.
"We know that women drive trucks and buses abroad, so why shouldn't they drive autos here? We welcome them." Rudramurthy said, "Women auto drivers are very popular in Bihar."
But both union leaders suggest the Transport Department help women get licences and then arrange for low-interest loans to buy the their autos.
Women cab drivers
Advocate Surya Mukundaraj, who started Angel City Cabs, a fleet of taxis also driven by women for women, says he has heard women are generally reluctant to get behind the wheel from private players who attempted similar projects.
One of his drivers, Sri Rajeshwari, who is on call round the clock, feels the same way. "It's not as though women are less capable. I used to run a driving school earlier, and have taught many women to drive. Mostly, women believe driving is a man's job," she told Express.
Initially, Mukundaraj undertook the training of 11 women cab drivers, but most quit even before they could start driving regularly.
"Canara Bank and Rotary Club Cantonment had come forward to help us. But everything fell apart when all the 11 women, from poor families, backed out six months after their training. Their families didn't allow them to venture out on their own," he says.
Rajeshwari, however, is more outgoing. "I get more calls at night than during the day, and I've never once been scared," she says, adding also that women drivers have to be more 'rough'.
"Otherwise, in a city like Bangalore, people blame you for things that are not even your fault." She has been driving on city roads for seven years now, but feels that both women drivers as well as women customers are more vulnerable in autos than in cabs.
"Especially, after 10 pm, and that's when women too lookout for women drivers. Until then, they have buses or other transport."
Even BMTC's 'women's special' buses, introduced in 2007, were taken off the roads over the next couple of years, citing non-profitability. "The buses were only occupied during peak hours, after which they would be more or less empty," says Dr Ekroop Caur, director, BMTC.
There were also reports of women's buses being used by men at night, making it unsafe for women. The BMTC is now planning to re-launch pink buses in areas where women drivers are more in number. Two women's buses already ply to Vidhan Soudha and ITPL.
When asked why there aren't too many women bus drivers—in fact, there's only been one so far, Prema Ramappa—Caur says, "It's a very stressful job, with the odd hours and the haphazard traffic. Women don't seem to be too confident of driving a big vehicle on city roads. We hire a lot of women as bus conductors and mechanics. However, if more women come forward to drive buses, we are willing to give them training."
More women drivers
Vishy Kuruganti, co-founder of the mGaadi service, an app that lets people order autos, feels that more women should be encouraged and is keen on hiring them. "For a service like ours, which a lot of women use, it would be great if we could send out female auto-drivers It would be a great value-addition for us," he says. Vishy feels that women don't drive autos because of the image of current auto-drivers.
"Most people see auto-drivers as ruffians. Also, most auto-drivers are very territorial. So an atmosphere of fear is created. This needs to change if we really want more women to start driving autos," he says.
(With inputs from Chetana Divya Vasudev, Shyama Krishna Kumar, A Sharadhaa)