A woman hailing the familiar black-and-yellow taxi in Mumbai sometimes prepares herself for the prospect of encountering a cab driver who spits out streams of tobacco intermittently, throws lecherous glances at her in the rear-view mirror or argues over the fare.
The meter cabs, more than 40,000 in number, remain a staple in the city that is always in a hurry. However, a unique fleet service that hit the streets five years ago with an aim to buck the trend is steadily gaining ground here. Taxi services such as Priyadarshini, Viira and ForShe cabs, which employ only women drivers, have seen a boost in demand recently as the horrific incident of gang rape in Delhi has heightened concerns around women’s security.
The cab agencies say customer enquiries have nearly doubled with heavy booking requests for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when girls returning from parties look for a safe travel option. “With several incidents coming to light over the past few months, I don’t feel safe staying out after 1 am. Travelling with a male friend also does not ensure safety,” confesses Aparna Saboo, corporate communication officer at The Walt Disney Company.
The 23-year-old Andheri resident recently looked up details of the women-driven taxi services which ply across the city as well as to Pune and Nashik, and plans to use the service to keep her parents from worrying if she has to work late. “They would feel comfortable if a woman was driving me home. Also, I think female chauffeurs will understand our concerns and wouldn’t mind navigating small lanes to drop me right to my doorstep.”
Citizens have called Mumbai’s long-held “safe” tag into question as crimes and acts of violence continue to climb. Reported cases of rape in the city increased to 221 in 2011 from 194 in 2010, according to PTI reports.
To help combat any trouble, each of the all-women fleet cabs is equipped with a GPS device, pepper spray, a baton and a panic button to alert the company’s call centre. The drivers are further instructed to dial 103, Mumbai Police’s 24-hour helpline for women, in case of an emergency.
The lady drivers have not faced sexual harassment or assault while driving. In fact, many of them prefer to work nights due to the rare comfort of empty roads and higher fares attached with late hours.
During the course of their two-month training programme, the drivers are also taught basic martial arts and self-defence. “I haven’t had to use (martial arts) so far but if the occasion calls for it, I will do that too,” says 32-year-old driver Anita Pisal.
Male taxi drivers, who were vehemently opposed to such fleets as they eat into their business, have realised that women are serious about the profession. Now, when the women get stuck with a flat tire, some even offer to help. The sight of women cabbies leaves others on the road awe-struck. “When they realise it is a taxi and not a private vehicle, people salute or show a thumbs-up signal. Once, a family stopped to have a photograph taken with me,” Pisal laughs.
The chauffeur, formerly a balwadi worker, discovered her love for driving little over a year ago. Already, she manoeuvres the cabs around potholes with ease and displays fluent parallel-parking skills. Like Pisal, the roughly 60 determined women cab drivers in the city come from low-income families. They took up driving as a means for financial upliftment but are also systematically dispelling notions that women make bad drivers.
“They could have earned a living by making papads or pickles. But I wanted them to break into a male bastion and make heads turn,” says Susieben Shah, lawyer and founder of Priyadarshini Taxi Service. After a gruelling 10- to12-hour-long shift, the drivers take home Rs 1,000-Rs 1,500 on some days. They can make 3-4 long trips or cover 5-6 shorter routes on a typical day. The service has also grown popular with pregnant women and senior citizens as “women are careful drivers and do not often get into road rage,” observes Viira Cabs Managing Director Preeti Sharma Menon.
However, the all-women taxi services with a total of less than 70 vehicles are dwarfed by the scores of black-and-yellow cabs in the city. Funding challenges and a sluggish regulatory process have kept the fleet population intensely below the rising demand.
The fare of Rs 200 for the first 10 kilometres and Rs 17 per kilometre thereafter seems a bit steep for daily travel, but passengers are willing to part with the sum for the sense of protection this service offers.
Supriya Zimbar, 25, joined Priyadarshini Taxi with the intention of trying her hand at driving for a few months. Four years later, she is still with the service. She would like to see other women stepping into the domain to meet the growing demand. “More women need to get into taxi driving. We have gone ahead in every other field, so why not this?”