Almost every afternoon over the last three months, the buzz around Maddox Square Park in Kolkata’s Ballygunge has been all about them. For two hours, they would take turns to slip into the driver’s seat of the autorickshaw, slowly gaining respect and confidence with every drive. Very soon, one of them will stake claim to a special tag — Kolkata’s first woman autorickshaw driver. “I have been working in an auto garage since I was nine after my father abandoned my family. I have also begged for money outside malls to support my two younger sisters and mother. But now, once I get my driving licence, I will not be leading my life at the mercy of others… finally,” says Mousami Sardar.
The 18-year-old is among the 60 women, all from underprivileged backgrounds, who are being trained by Gopal Sutar, an autorickshaw driver and local union leader.
Mousami, a Class IV dropout, is also among the 12 who have already applied for a licence. Along with her, is Rupa Nayak, a 32-year-old mother of two whose husband left her 10 years ago to marry another woman. “Today, I am so excited at the idea of being independent, living my life on my own terms… this is perhaps the best gift a woman can give herself,” says Rupa, who works as a domestic help.
Then, there’s Krishna Bijoli, the wife of an auto driver and one among the seven who have got their licence and are in the race for that coveted tag. “My husband motivated me to learn… If we earn double, we will be able to provide a better education for our children. We want to give them the best education,” says Bijoli.
The face behind these stories of change and aspiration is a 47-year-old who raised his two daughters on his own after the death of his wife 20 years ago. “I have always believed that women must earn on their own. Since I am involved with the union, many women approach me for jobs. One day, I realised ‘I Will Not Be Leading My Life At Mercy Of Others… Finally’ that I cannot provide all of them with employment but I can at least train them to stand on their own feet.
I lost my wife when my younger daughter was just three months old. Today, my daughters are in college and can drive almost all vehicles,” says Sutar, the general secretary of the South Kolkata District Auto Drivers and Auto Operators Union. His initiative has now got the state government’s attention.
According to West Bengal Transport Minister Subhendu Adhikari, there’s already a scheme in place that will help Sutar’s students. “We will encourage this initiative under the Gati Dhara scheme. We have already given some of the women route permits. It will be great to have women auto drivers in our city,” says Adhikari.
According to officials, the scheme targets unemployed youth in the 20-45 age group. The government facilitates bank loans of Rs 10 lakh each for purchase of vehicles — with a subsidy of 30 per cent, the applicant needs to repay only Rs 9 lakh. But while the future awaits, the women still struggle to get over the past.
“During Durga Puja, I used to make a deal with one of the puchkawalas. I would clean the garbage outside his stall at night and he would give me a packet of puchka. I would take it home and all of us would share it,” says Mousami, her eyes filling up.
Today, she says, there’s nothing but hope in her life. “My husband is a bicycle mechanic and we stay in a temporary shelter below a flyover… But times have changed. My husband takes pride in taking driving lessons from me every morning. Our monthly earning is about Rs 3,000 now and we plan to buy an autorickshaw on loan. Our life will change for the better,” says Mousami.
For Rupa, this is the end of a life of abuse, and cooking and washing utensils at other homes. “I have already started dreaming about a brand new autorickshaw. I will name it Sanjana-Tushar, after my children. Driving an auto is a respectable job. I can easily earn Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000 every month, which is three times what I earn now. Then, I will buy a cab and earn more money. Bada banna hai aur life badalna hai (I want to make it big and change my life),” she says. But Mousami and Rupa know that there are wary eyes watching.
“If these women drivers join, all the female passengers will prefer their autos and it will affect our business. They can always do other things, which we can’t, like cooking, take care of their homes. I am not criticising this initiative but I am worried about my family. We also need money, too,” says Raju Prasad, who has been driving an auto in the area for more than ten years.
But there are friendly faces, too. Says Pintu Das, another auto driver in Ballygunge: “If they drive their own autos, they can easily take home around Rs 15,000 every month. If they take autos on rent, the monthly income would be around Rs 8,000 to Rs 9,000. This is very good for these women who have no one else to depend on.”
Sutar has the last word, though. “Some people will always question your efforts. It has never been easy for women in our society, has it? I’d just say that there is no reason to worry as the market for autos is huge in Kolkata. And now, those women who hire taxis to feel safe will probably prefer these special autos.”