Dressed in a maroon salwaar-kameez and striped dupatta, her hair pulled back into a knot, Sanjan Kumari arrives at Sector 17, Chandigarh’s largest shopping hub. It’s 7.30 am and, with most shops still shut, it is a little early for shopping. Clutching her bright pink bag, Kumari strides past several glossy shop windows and heads straight to the multi-level parking lot adjacent to the shopping plaza.
Kumari is a parking attendant and it’s her first day at work. She is part of the first batch of 200 women who have been hired to manage all 26 public parking lots across Chandigarh, the first city to launch such an initiative for women. The project — an initiative of the Chandigarh Municipal Corporation and Arya Toll Infra Limited, a Mumbai-based firm — will see women attendants work between 7.30 am and 9 pm, after which the men take over.
This Thursday morning, Kumari has dropped off her six-year-old son at her parents’ home in Sector 25, five km away, before reporting for work. “Koi kaam aisa nahi jo ek aurat nahi kar sakti, par pehli baar hai toh thodi tension hai (There is no job a woman can’t do but I am a little tense since I am doing this for the first time),” says Kumari, 27, before she lines up with 29 other women for a briefing by her supervisor, Maya.
Kumari, a graduate, is assigned one of the three booths at the exit point of the parking lot, where she will spend the next four hours of her nine-hour shift collecting parking slips and taking payments from visitors. After lunch, the 27-year-old will move to the basement to guide cars to their parking spots.
After the briefing, Kumari takes her seat behind a desk that has a computer and a drawer with neat stacks of currency notes. Sitting on a stool inside the white wooden cabin, Kumari quickly goes over her list of tasks: scan the parking slip, check the duration for which the car was parked, generate the parking fee, receive the payment and enter the amount into the computer.
By 11 am, the Sector 17 market has come to life. Several cars have already been parked at the multi-level parking facility and some have begun to make their way out. A white Swift stops near Kumari’s booth window and the driver hands Kumari his slip. She goes through the steps she just revised and the car is out in no time.
Next is a white Fortuner, and the driver has to pay Rs 5. “Ab ye sab ladies kar rahi hain (Women are doing these jobs now),” the man on the passenger’s seat tells the driver. Kumari ignores the remark and keys in the fee amount. The boom barrier lifts and the car moves out.
“I knew this wouldn’t be an easy job but I was prepared for it. I have heard stories of drivers who abuse and assault attendants to avoid paying. But hopefully, there will be some who will appreciate my effort,” smiles Kumari, opening the door of the booth to let some air in.
Kumari, who earlier worked as a nurse at a private hospital, was forced to take up this job after her husband died last year. They had been married for nine years. “I have worked in several hospitals and we often had night shifts. My husband would drop me off for my night-shift and pick me up in the morning. He would also look after our son. But now that he is not around, I need to have a day job and go back to my son,” says Kumari, who will earn Rs 10,000 a month as a parking attendant.
For the next few hours, there is a steady stream of cars at Kumari’s counter. Around 1.30 pm, her son calls to ask when is she coming home. “Bass, beta… jaldi aa jaungi ghar (I will be home soon),” she mumbles into her phone while collecting the parking slip from another driver. She has another four hours before her shift ends.
A little after 2 pm, an executive from Arya Toll Infra Limited, the Mumbai firm that has been allotted the Rs 14.78-crore parking contract, arrives for an inspection. “Ek baat dhyan se sun lo, thoda sa paisa yahan se nikla toh tum sab apni jeb se doge (Listen carefully, even if a penny disappears from this drawer, you will have to pay from your own pocket). Everything is fed into the computer, including the number of cars that leave the area,” he warns the attendants. Kumari nods.
Soon after, a Zen arrives at Kumari’s booth. This time things don’t go as smoothly. The scanning machine has a glitch and refuses to read the parking ticket. Hassled, Kumari starts pressing all buttons on her keyboard. “Arre, jaldi karo yaar… kitna time laga rahi ho (Make it fast, how long will you take),” says the driver impatiently. “Sorry, sorry,” says Kumari, continuing to press the buttons. After a few attempts, the machine responds and the driver drives past the barrier, glaring at Kumari.
“This is the kind of anger we were told about at the training session. People in Chandigarh are hot-headed and get impatient easily. I just smile,” says Kumari. Before taking up the job, she says, she underwent two training sessions where they were told to remain calm in the face of angry visitors. “We were told that some people might even abuse us but we need to keep calm and SMILE — ‘See Magic in Life Everyday’,” says Kumari. “I have learnt a few self-defence techniques in college. If things go out of hand I can make use of them,” she says.
A day after The Sunday Express met Kumari, a bar owner allegedly misbehaved with one of the attendants at the parking lot. But the next day, most women, including Kumari turned up to work.