Many of Shabnam and Yogita’s male colleagues want them to fail or don’t believe they can succeed. But Delhi Transport Corporation’s newest women drivers are here to stay, and they’re not going to be run off the road.
Shabman and Yogita are among the 13 women drivers who received their appointment letters from DTC last Friday. With their induction, the public transport company now has 34 women drivers. Plans are underway to increase their strength to 100 by 31 January under Mission Parivartan, a Delhi government initiative to train women to drive heavy motor vehicles (HMVs).
The new drivers defy stereotypes—one woman has a double Master’s degree; another is a former wrestler. But they’re all united by their desire to be behind the wheel.
“While driving the bus, I feel like the road is mine and I am flying,” says 38-year-old Yogita Puril who has a BCom degree from Delhi University. When she was 12, she convinced the auto driver who used to drop her and other children to school, to teach her to drive. The sense of control she felt behind the wheel was a revelation, she says.
Her presence in the male-dominated DTC bastion is also a revelation of sorts to other drivers and even the marshals.
“To drive a vehicle, one must have strong shoulders and must be able to use abusive language and vulgarity. Will these women abuse on the streets?” said a 26-year-old marshal who did not want to be named.
The women intend to prove him wrong — without learning to abuse.
‘A phone call changed my life’
Before joining DTC, 34-year old Shabnam was a professional taxi driver with a private company in Noida and had also worked for a school teacher in Delhi.
“One day I got a call from Ashok Leyland Driver Training Institute in Burari, and my life totally changed,” she says. She learned that under Mission Parivartan, women too could apply, and for free, for an HMV licence, which costs Rs 15,000-16,000.
“We got a lot of encouragement from the Burari centre and were given class timings as per our wish,” Shabnam adds.
Every morning at 5 for one-and-a-half months, Shabnam would travel to the institute from her house in Ghazipur. Both she and Yogita are among the first batch of beneficiaries to ‘graduate’ from the Burari institute where around 160 women are currently under training. The initiative does not guarantee jobs, but it equips them to apply to DTC and other organisations.
Shabnam’s parents and husband were surprised by her decision to become a bus driver but have now come around. “My mother-in-law was very happy after my photo was published in the newspaper. Now, she tells everyone, ‘My Shabnam drives a bus’,” she says.
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Being part of DTC’s rank and file of 15,000 male drivers is the beginning of a long journey towards equality–at home, at workplace and on the road. The new inductees are not permanent employees, but are hired for 11 months on a contract, earning less than half of what the permanent male drivers do.
Shabnam says she can earn Rs 700-800 a day whereas a permanent driver’s monthly salary is Rs 70,000. “We do not have many benefits such as medical insurance,” she adds.
A senior DTC official, speaking to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, said that since 2016, the government hasn’t been hiring permanent drivers, adding male drivers too are now employed on contract basis.
But women drivers are given the freedom to choose the depot they want to work out of, and are given morning shifts. They have to complete one round of 125 km before clocking out for the day. However, a few said they have done evening shifts as well.
Every day on the job, they are reminded of their gender. One male passenger, after seeing Shabnam behind the wheel, said with a laugh he would now take out an insurance.
There’s pushback from the male employees as well. “I give it in writing… in six months the whole female lobby will be sitting at home,” the 26-year-old marshal cited earlier said.
Deepak Kumar, an officer scheduling duties at Rajghat bus depot, welcomed the decision but said that women drivers would have to make “adjustments” at home.
And as for their driving skills, the perception among men is clear.
Talwar Singh, an officer with the Delhi Traffic Police, said that women drivers cannot drive buses in East Delhi because of the narrow lanes and how other drivers frequently flout driving rules and regulations. “They will just be kept on open roads where they can fly comfortably,” he said.
Dalbir Singh, a 46-year-old permanent driver, said no one in Delhi knows how to drive. “Not just women, even men don’t. I swear in the name of this water,” he said, holding his water bottle up.
Aside from such beliefs, the new employees also have to face poor sanitation facilities at the depots. Delhi transport minister Kailash Gehlot has assured them that their infrastructure needs will be addressed within 15 days.
While it may seem they are alone on this ride, women conductors and marshals are happy with the increasing number of women in the DTC’s fleet. Conductor Priya Kaithwas and marshal Manju Tomar said it will help women “get rid of the disdain we are facing now”.
Even some men have thrown their weight behind the new inductees.
“Today women are joining the Army and flying fighter planes. They can drive buses,” said Amrit Lal, a 49-year-old marshal.
(Edited by Prashant)