As I walked out of the Jay Prakash Narayan Airport in Patna with my earphones on, there she was, one among many, demanding my attention. Suddenly 10-15 auto rickshaw drivers surrounded me, asking me where I wanted to go. But then Sangeeta came and demanded that the other auto drivers let me be, as she had asked me first, and that she should take me. That seemed to be a rule. Despite that, she had to spend another five minutes screaming, trying to assert herself before the rest of them finally gave in and left. Finally, they were all gone and it was just her and me.
We started walking towards her auto which stood in the parking area and started talking about what had just happened. She told me that this happens very often. They are silenced by the men who completely dominate the occupation as well as public places. She said there were only around six women who worked in the airport area, as compared to hundreds of men. It is, of course, much more difficult in places like the Patna Junction, where there are larger crowds and you have to struggle harder to get customers.
When she began around a year and a half ago, it was much worse. She didn’t know how to respond to such behaviour. Screaming and fighting aren’t what a ‘good’ woman does, so she would stand on the sidelines, barely getting any customers. So she did what any worker who wants to do well would do. She gave up on those ideas and teachings, and started standing and shouting out to customers, and fighting with the other auto drivers when required.
Sangeeta is doing better, but the same cannot be said of many other women who had started driving autos around 2013 with the help of the Bihar government’s scheme. Many of them were unable to pay the loans, and there were issues with the permits promised by the government as well, while some others just had to quit for various reasons. As a result of many such factors, the number of female auto drivers continues to decline. Family pressure and marginalisation in the workplace also play a big role in this.
It is tragic that this is happening, because initiatives like this are just what we need. Not only in Patna, but even in places like Delhi – where it is an accomplishment to meet a female cab driver, and female auto drivers can be counted on one hand.
In that regard, Patna has done quite well. I am told that female auto drivers aren’t such a rare sight here. But let us not start patting ourselves on the back just yet. There is so much to be done. The policies that encourage these initiatives need to be implemented better. A supportive workplace also needs to be created so that doing their job isn’t an added struggle for women. Equality in the workplace in largely unorganised sectors like these is a far-fetched dream, but there is one way to combat certain issues. We must do all we can to maintain and increase the number of women in these fields. Perhaps we can’t solve all the problems by simply adding women – but the least it does is minimise marginalisation, and normalise women’s presence in public places. It also encourages more women to travel in autos and get out on the streets.
It is a step towards making the city we live in, our own. One step at a time.