Monday, July 07, 2014

'She' rules the Roads

The Kerala State Government's Gender Park has initiated She Taxis, a popular scheme where women own and drive their taxis. And the customers are women

By Shevlin Sebastian

Photo: Suma K. Nair by Manu R. Mavelil

It is 10.30 p.m. An Ertiga car glides into the Info Park at Thiruvananthapuram and stops in front of the branch office of a US-based IT firm. Soon, a group of women, in their early twenties, get into the taxi which will take them to their homes after the evening shift.

Once inside the car, the women have a freewheeling conversation about office politics, love affairs, plans for the future, recipes and movies. Sometimes, the driver joins in. It would seem like an ordinary taxi ride back home, except for one important difference: the driver is a lady. Her name is Suma K. Nair. And the taxi, which she owns, is called a She Taxi.

This concept was initiated by the Gender Park, an institution which is promoted by the Department of Social Justice of the Kerala state government. The idea grew out of a murder of a 23-year-old girl, Sowmya, on February 1, 2011 by a man called Govindachamy, while she was travelling in an empty compartment of a train from Kochi to Shoranur. Not surprisingly, the killing rocked the state.

And provoked sombre reflection at the Gender Park. “We thought about how to provide safe transport for women at night,” says Dr. PTM Sunish, the CEO. “At night, even if a woman calls for a taxi in the hopes of enjoying a safe journey, she may not be able to do so, because the male driver is capable of violence.”

In She Taxis, as the name indicates, all the drivers are women. And they have been provided with adequate security. “The cab and the control room, which is run by a private firm, Rain Concert Technologies, are connected 24/7,” says Sunish. “The control room is also connected to the police and emergency services like the ambulance and fire force.”

An alarm has also been installed inside the car. In case of an attack, the driver can activate it, which will set off a siren, that will be relayed to the control room. “This will make clear that the driver is in danger,” says Sunish.

Ever since the scheme was unveiled in December, 2013, there have not been any untoward incidents. The 31-year-old MS Sari, a She Taxi driver, smiles when asked about the dangers of driving at night. “No, I have no fears whatsoever,” she says. “The security systems are good. I have travelled safely to Kottayam, Kochi and Alleppey.”

Thus far, 23 taxis are operating in Thiruvananthapuram and another eight in Kochi. “We get far too many calls than the number of cabs we have,” says MK Muneer, the Minister for Social Justice. “To fill the lacunae, we will need a lot more drivers.”

So how does one become a driver? “Advertisements are put in the newspapers,” says Muneer. “During the interviews what we look for is whether the woman has a passion for driving. Otherwise it is difficult to do the job.”

Suma loves driving and has been doing so for the past ten years. The wife of a lawyer and the mother of two teenage children, Suma, 44, took a loan from a bank, and bought the Ertiga for Rs 9.4 lakh. She began driving on February 18, and has been working 24/7 ever since.

I get five to six calls a day,” she says. “Most of the time, it is for trips in and around the city.” The charge is Rs 250 per hour for a maximum of 10 kms. Thereafter, it is Rs 14 per km.

As a woman, she bonds easily with her customers, who include doctors, engineers, advocates and housewives. Recently, an 80-year-old woman, Vijaylakshmi, arrived from Singapore, for Ayurvedic treatment. Suma took her all over the city, including temples and shops. “Vijaylakshmi was happy that I was there for her throughout her stay,” says Suma.

Meanwhile, the idea is catching on. In March, the Hyderabad Municipal Corporation, in consultation with the Gender Park, introduced five She taxis in the city. Other cities which have expressed interest include Bhopal, Bangalore and Delhi.

A confident Dr. KM Abraham, Additional Chief Secretary, of the Social Justice Department, says that She Taxis will engender a social transformation among women.

Suma agrees. “I feel a sense of freedom and empowerment whenever I am behind the wheel,” she says. 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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