Ch****a”, mutters Surbhi Kushwaha, as a bus barrels into the parking bay at the bus station in Kanpur, barely one foot from the vehicle she is on. She shouts a warning to its driver to keep off and adds a withering look. The 23-year-old petite, sharp-eyed woman, armed with a soiled black waist bag and a faded cotton dupatta, then turns to a passenger asking about bus timings. Soon, she is joking with male drivers and conductors twice her age, buying snacks from the crumbling food stall and, finally, slapping her Allahabad-bound AC bus into backing up and setting out.
Kushwaha’s journey began with her being chosen as one of the 15 women from Allahabad to be inducted into the UP roadways last year to fill up vacancies for the post of conductors, which were thrown open for the first time in 25 years under the then Samajwadi Party government.
This is also the first time that the UP State Road Transport Corporation (UPSRTC) has, as a matter of policy, deployed women on the road. “In 2016, when vacancies for the posts of conductors opened up for the first time in 25 years, we adhered to a 20 per cent reservation for women, according to the state public commission guidelines. So, of the 1,300 recruits, over 300 were women. We also inducted another 200 women under the ‘dependent of the deceased (mritak)’ quota,” says chief general manager (operations), UPSRTC, HS Gaba.
He admits there was scepticism about how the arrangement would work, with 532 female conductors (10 per cent of the total strength of conductors engaged by the UPSRTC) deployed across the rugged expanse of Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest, and one of its most backward, states.
Gaba says, “We faced teething problems last year. There were reports of drivers not cooperating with female conductors and a few mild instances of passengers misbehaving with them, but these have been ironed out for good.” The UPSRTC also decided to pair each conductor with a driver to ensure accountability.
Kushwaha says that all her male colleagues are supportive, looking over her shoulder at Shashi Bhushan, the driver helming the bus. Male office bearers at the Leader Road depot in Allahabad, where she begins work every alternate day, setting out for a two-way 12-hour long trip between Allahabad and Kanpur, say it is a big challenge for a woman her age to undertake.
“This job is tough and physically taxing. And then dealing with the public is an art. We take good care of the women staffers, especially Surbhi, who is like a daughter to us. But once the bus takes off, nothing is in our hand. She has to deal with whatever situation might arise on the journey, be it an aggressive passenger or a vehicle breakdown or an accident,” Ramesh Singh, a clerk says.
One of the youngest in this league of women staff, Kushwaha plays her part with elan. Her blue cotton kurta and faded jeans is paired with sneakers, she says, to make her look drab and “formal” so “no one should feel she is just another girl they can mess with”.
In a loud voice laced with authority, she directs passengers to the few remaining seats. She asks a male passenger to shift to a rear seat so a mother and child don’t have to shuffle to the back of the AC bus. “There is space for everyone, please stop making a fuss,” she scolds a passenger, as she begins to collect the fare. Two kilometers out of the bus station, an angry woman walks up to her shouting she has been cheated because the bus hardly feels like an AC bus; it is dirty and hot and has no curtains. Other passengers join in, forcing Kushwaha to troubleshoot.
“The curtains are in the laundry and the AC will be on. At least let the bus start moving,” she says turning her back to them and taking her seat in front, shutting out the noise by closing the door to the drivers’ cabin behind her.
Kushwaha and women conductors like her say they have learnt to wear a stern persona on the job so that no one can run roughshod over them. “If I am soft, everyone will take advantage of me,” says a barely audible Ruchi Malviya, who at 21 is, perhaps, the youngest female staffer in the region. She passes off as a silent, almost tentative conductor stationed on a bus from Allahabad to Varanasi.
Once the bus drops off its passengers and steers into the Varanasi Cantonment bus terminal to find another bus blocking its parking slot, however, Malviya is the one the driver Dharmraj Singh, 47, comes to with a helpless plea. “Madam, aap jake boliye unko,” he says.
Malviya gets off in a huff for what seems to be a usual hassle, shouts out to her bete noir Poonam Yadav, 23, a fellow conductor, warning her against blocking her parking slot and delaying her departure for the return trip to Allahabad. “She’s jealous of me for some reason,” Malviya glares, walking back to her bus.
“Every job has its difficulties, but that does not mean one stops working,” says Malviya, who lost her father to throat cancer in 2009 and her 25-year-old sister to a sudden fever last year. Her late sister Ankita was the one who bagged the job of a conductor in 2016 but it was Malviya who eventually made it.
Staring out of the window and occasionally scrolling through her social media feed, Kushwaha, who also “got the job” under the “mritak quota” after her father, a driver in the UPSRTC, succumbed to respiratory failure in 2011, says life has thrown a fair share of unforeseen circumstances and difficult situations at her.
“This is the age to study and enjoy myself. But I am having to work, support my mother and manage the house. I am so exhausted at the end of a work day that I spend the next break day refortifying. And there is no time for friends or outings,” says the young woman, a few days later when we meet at a restaurant in Allahabad. She is wearing a leather jacket paired with jeans, her hair is worn loose and her eyes are kohl-rimmed. She appears less on guard than the matter-of-fact woman on the bus.
Kushwaha talks about having to miss a year of college following her father’s sudden demise, when she began working as a cashier at a garments store in a mall for Rs 7,000 a month. Her mother also began working as a saleswoman at a water purifier company in the city.
Over the next four years, even as she balanced her work and home, she completed her graduation. “The atmosphere at home deteriorated. My uncles were shocked to see me and my mother go to work and earn our own living instead of living off their charity,” she says, her voice hardening. She is reluctant that we visit her house in Kareli in the old congested and decrepit part of the city.
According to a report by IndiaSpend, a data journalism portal, only 27 per cent Indian women are currently engaged in its labour force; as a result, India ranks 170 on a list of 188 economies. Not only is India’s female participation one of the lowest, but it has also been rapidly declining over the past decade, a 2017 report by the World Bank shows.
Kushwaha says as soon as she bagged the government job last year, she asked her mother to stop working because “it doesn’t feel good”. She says she is strong enough to provide for both with her Rs 20,000 monthly salary. Her male friend Rishabh protests that this job is not “suitable for girls”. She admits she does not particularly like it either.
But I have learnt on the job and toughened up to face any situation,” she said, minutes after defiantly daring a middle-aged male passenger to lodge a complaint against her for “cheating” customers of their money because “the heater was not functioning through the whole journey”.
While the female conductors have worked their way around most occupational hazards, their colleagues feel it is a bad idea to send women out on the road. Shashi Bhushan, the driver who Kushwaha has been paired with for her trips to and from Kanpur, agrees more women should come into the roadways. But, he says, there is always the problem of having to shield them from aggressive passengers.
“It is an added responsibility on my shoulders, having to look out for her. Also, I have to shout and draw passengers to my bus at the terminal and on the road while it is the conductor’s job to do so. But her voice is soft and she cannot conduct, and that pushes down our earnings,” Bhushan says, calling out to passengers on a cold foggy morning in Allahabad. Kushwaha stands a little distance away, chatting with colleagues.
Md Mushtaq, a 57-year-old driver on the Allahabad-Jaunpur route, agrees. “I have to intervene when drunk passengers get too rowdy with my conductor Sandhya. She can’t help in backing the bus or running off to find a mechanic if the bus breaks down mid journey either.”
There are exceptions to the rule, however. A fellow driver mentions middle-aged women staff like the 40-year-old Vidya Devi, who are loud and sure-footed and don’t need male assistance. Vidya Devi laughs as she hollers for passengers near her non-AC yellow-and-red bus at the Civil Lines depot. “I am a leader here. I don’t need men supporting me. I support them,” she says.
Ranvijay Singh, an advocate in the Allahabad High Court who takes up cases for the UPSRTC, however, suggests that female conductors tend to be less inclined towards corruption. “A male conductor and driver always have a good setting and they collude to siphon off funds. But a male driver cannot bond so well with a female conductor or vice versa. So in a way, it is good women are being engaged in the roadways.”
Sandhya, 29, and Ruchi both would prefer being shifted to the office where they can work as clerks. It forces Sandhya, for example, to take rooms on rent at cities away from home where their buses halt for the night. She leaves her four-year-old daughter with her parents in Azamgarh and gets to meet her once in four days.
Mithilesh Sharma, 35, stationed on a rickety non-AC bus on the Allahabad-Kanpur route says depot managers consider them an inefficient lot because women conductors manage to draw fewer passengers aboard and yield lesser earnings, as a result.
“They deploy us on the worst buses, which break down often, causing hour-long delays because of which we end up reaching home past midnight. They do this because they don’t want us to man the faster, newer buses since we get lesser earnings,” Mithilesh says.
Passengers, however, do not mind women as conductors. Shashi Patel, a 25-year-old nurse from the District Women Hospital, Allahabad, travelling on the bus Malviya is on says the first time she saw a woman conductor approach her for the bus fare last year, she was pleasantly surprised. “It feels so good to see a woman in a position of power in public buses. I often travel alone by interstate buses and it gets very lonely and disconcerting when a bus is populated by men, especially in the evenings,” Patel says.
Neetu Singh, a banker in Varanasi, says it’s easier to communicate problems to women, especially if she needs to relieve herself mid-journey. Complaints of harassment by fellow passengers are also dealt with sternly by women as compared to men, she says. Male passengers say they have no real reservations with women as long as they are efficient in their work.
With women breaking into the predominantly male bastion that is the UPSRTC, lives and work have been thrown into a state of flux for both its male and female staff.
Kushwaha, getting off her bus at the Leader Road depot and depositing the day’s earnings with the collection office, says she is proud of having “achieved a lot” at such a young age; she got her home renovated late last year and hosted a function on father’s death anniversary, bought herself a bike and has got her hair streaked golden for Rs 3,500. A tattoo on the waist is in the offing, she says. Securing a government job has also improved prospects for her in the marriage market, she says, noticing how many proposals have been coming in lately. She plans to marry by the age of 25.
Mithilesh feels she has proved to herself gender is not a factor, which used to bother her when it comes to dealing with the public or her colleagues. “Last week, I got a rogue passenger soundly thrashed for teasing a young woman passenger sitting by him. I had got the bus stopped right at a police station in Aung village. I am very strict with such people. I don’t get scared and all. I just do my work properly.”
Malviya, who wept through the first month into her job as a conductor, now fights wherever she needs to. And for Umesh Singh, 45, a UPSRTC driver on the Allahabad-Varanasi route, this is a lifetime’s worth of an experience. “I had never imagined I will be working with women as colleagues in my lifetime. But it has happened. And it is amazing. Though I feel this job is a little tough for them, an official clerical role would be better. But still, they are managing well,” Umesh says.
“With so many women working around us, it’s not so difficult imagining my daughter can go out to work and earn her own money someday as well,” a friend and fellow driver Ramesh Kumar Pandey chips in.