Home » Women with electric rickshaws combat Delhi’s toxic air – and its sexism – The Guardian

Women with electric rickshaws combat Delhi’s toxic air – and its sexism – The Guardian

by Arifa Rana

Break into male-dominated public-transport helps tackle city’s pollution crisis and safety concerns
Monika Devi is thrilled to be driving her autorickshaw. The 35-year-old has two reasons to be particularly proud as she winds her way through New Delhi’s insanely congested streets.
She is one of the first women to be driving one of the three-wheeled taxis that swarm the roads of the Indian capital. And she is driving one of Delhi’s first e-rickshaws – part of the city’s drive to tackle its notoriously filthy air.
“This city is unsafe for women, and until now they had no choice but to travel in an autorickshaw driven by a man, which can be scary at night,” she said. “Plus, I hate the pollution and feel happy that I’m doing my bit by driving an electric rickshaw which isn’t spewing out toxic fumes.”
While some Indian cities such as Pune and Mumbai have female autorickshaw drivers (though only a handful), for some reason public transport in New Delhi remains an exclusively male affair.
Indian women fly planes, sit in boardrooms and send rockets into space, but do not drive rickshaws or buses in Delhi. Sunita Choudhary became the city’s first female autorickshaw driver 18 years ago, but since then no one else has taken up the challenge.
This sort of low-level job appeals only to women from lower-income families, yet the conservative culture of this social stratum firmly resists the idea of women being out on the streets and interacting with men.
“My father drives an autorickshaw, but he initially opposed me,” Devi said. “He thought male passengers would flirt with me or harass me. I had to fight him on this. I am not scared at all of being on the roads. If women are scared, how will we make progress?”
Her e-rickshaw was subsidised by the Delhi state government, which has launched a fleet of 3,500 e-rickshaws – painted a sickly lilac rather than the standard yellow and green – and earmarked 500 for women.
The din of honking and the Darwinian rules that determine who has right of way on Indian roads (it’s the bigger vehicle, so buses and trucks are king) make driving stressful. The e-rickshaw itself is a flimsy contraption on three wheels with no safety belts or protection and exposed to the fumes of other vehicles.
Dolly Maurya, 26, another driver, is in Saket near the Select City Walk shopping mall, drenched in sweat in the 42-degree April heat.
For a woman, as the hours go by, finding a public toilet is not easy. “It’s easy for male drivers, they just stop and pee on the roadside, but for me it’s always a choice between drinking water because I’m thirsty or not drinking it to avoid going to the loo,” said Maurya.
And then there are boorish male rickshaw drivers who give them grief. While standing at a traffic light, two male drivers spot Maurya and jeer. “Look at that, now they’re taking our jobs too when they barely know their left from their right,” they laughed.
The heckling is countered by the warm appreciation of female passengers. “They take my number so that they can call me if they are going out during the evening,” Maurya said. “Mind you, I’m not sure what my father and brothers will say about my being out after 8pm.”
Her biggest anxiety is the battery running out a long way from a charging point. Delhi’s transport minister, Kailash Gahlot, is planning for drivers never to be further than 3km from a charging point, but that will take some time. Until it happens, most women e-rickshaw drivers will avoid long journey that could leave them stranded on a lonely road.
The Delhi government is promoting e-rickshaws as part of its “paradigm shift” from fossil fuel- to electricity-based vehicles to try to reduce the air pollution. The city’s first electric bus began carrying passengers in January and there’s a pledge to add hundreds more soon.
But for Jyoti Pande Lavakare, founder of non-profit Care for Air, the 3,500 e-rickshaws are a grain of sand in the desert compared to the 90,000 traditional autorickshaws with their polluting two-stroke engines.
“We need to phase out all old polluting vehicles urgently. Starting with e-rickshaws is good, but it needs to be much more ambitious so that e-rickshaws are powered by renewable energy, not by electricity from polluting coal-fired power plants,” said Lavakare.
Almost 40 women are also being trained to drive new automatic buses, both to give them jobs and for the comfort of female passengers who are still haunted by the 2012 gang rape and death of a young woman during a bus journey in the capital.
For Devi, one thing stands out about her new job. “It’s the heady feeling of independence,” she said.
“It’s important for a woman not to have to depend on her father or husband for money, and for me it’s the first time it has happened.”

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