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  • Writer's pictureShishu Mandir

Shishu Mandir launches Women E-Auto Drivers Programme

Driving an auto was not something these women even imagined they would be doing. They knew how to drive but they had only worked as maids and in garment factories. Now, they were given an opportunity to become their own bosses. There was equal parts excitement and trepidation. And yet, here they are, barely five months since they started driving the auto, and brimming with newfound confidence. Meet Helen, Flora, Selvi, Sarojini and Shakuntala, the first five women in the Shishu Mandir E-Auto Drivers Programme, part of the organisation’s women empowerment initiatives.

Flora is in her early 50s. For the last five months, she has been an auto driver. Before this, she worked as a domestic help. “I would start working at 6.30 in the morning in the first house. I would cook there and then go to another house for two hours to finish cooking. In the afternoon, I went to a third house to look after a baby. By 6.30 in the evening, I left for my last house, where I cooked, cleaned, and fed the owner’s cat. It would 9 in the night when I returned home. Despite working so hard, I couldn’t afford to fall sick. If I was sick, I may get one or two days off. If I needed more leave, they would just replace me as it inconvenienced them. There was never any guarantee for work, and there was never enough money.”

Shishu Mandir started a driving school as part of the Community College offerings. Several women were encouraged to join the school and learn to drive. Shishu Mandir had also entered into an arrangement with Taxshe, a cab service that was for women, driven by women. With the school’s encouragement, 120 women learnt to drive. Several were mothers of Shishu Mandir’s children, who had never learnt a skill before. And then Covid arrived and the company shut down. The project had hit a dead end.

Says Anand C, Director of Shishu Mandir, “We were looking for alternatives for our trained and licensed women drivers. In 2022, the Rotary Club approached Shishu Mandir with an idea. They had 5 electric autos and were keen to partner with an organisation that would take this opportunity to the right people. We immediately accepted.”

Those who had earned their driving license were informed of the opportunity. Several were reluctant to take up driving autos. But these five women were ready, willing, and needed the job more than the others.

Selvi, Shakuntala and Sarojini are mothers of Shishu children. In fact, both Selvi and Shakuntala were urged to join the driving school by their children. Says Selvi, “I used to work as a domestic help in Parvati Nagar. When I saw Bindhu driving the school van at Shishu Mandir, I also wanted to learn driving.” Selvi started attending the driving lessons after work. “It took me some time to get used to it, to get over the fear but I felt I should take it up to earn more money for my family.”

It took some effort to break biases, and even overcome fear. For Hellen, failing her driving test the first time put her off it. But she was encouraged to try again and got her license on the second attempt.

Hellen came from a broken family where her father, an alcoholic, who took his anger on his daughters. Her mother walked away from the house, leaving her children to bear the brunt of his rage. When she was 16, Hellen’s father arranged her marriage with an alcoholic youth in the neighbourhood. With misfortunes dogging her, she eventually arrived at Shishu Mandir, where her cousin worked. She was given a job in the kitchen but encouraged to learn driving when the school started. “Passengers confide in me,” says Hellen of her experience so far. “I give them strength. I was like a cat now I have the confidence to let my anger out. I want to give courage to girls like me.”

A woman auto driver is still a rarity in Bangalore, as is the electric auto. While sometimes, they hear rebuffs or have a driver try to overtake them, mostly, they encounter friendly faces, encouragement, and also many requests for selfies. “A passenger told me he feels safe to take a nap while I drive him to his destination,” says Sarojini.

Certainly, they are seeing the greater financial independence it has brought them. Each of them is able to earn between Rs 1,000-2,000 a day. They are able to set their own hours. Sarojini returns home in the evening while Selvi prefers to do school drop offs and pick-ups while Flora has a set of regular passengers.

From struggling to make ends meet, for the first time, they are, probably for the first time, able to plan for their lives. “I went shopping. I have always worn clothes that someone else would give me. Now I bought myself good quality clothes. I also bought a silk saree,” says Flora, laughing. She also mentions dropping a passenger at an eye clinic and deciding to go for a checkup. “I was prescribed specs. It cost Rs 3,800,” she says. This would have been challenging on a salary as a domestic help.

The Shishu Mandir Driving School is now a women-only school. The organization is keen that women acquire a skill that will help them secure a livelihood. But beyond that is the intangible but very empowering outcome, the experience of independence, confidence, and fearlessness.

“Driving an auto has brought joy and confidence,” says Anand. “For the first 3-4 days after they received the autos, these women were still nervous. So, I said, we would pay them the day's earnings so they could practise driving in the neighbourhood. Once they started driving, someone would stop and ask for a ride. Within days, they were driving everywhere.”

Hellen, Flora, Selvi, Sarojini and Shakuntala have seen more of the city than they ever had, meeting people from varied backgrounds, seeing and hearing, and understanding the world beyond their four walls. It’s a new experience for them, and an inspiration for others like them, on what women empowerment can look like. Perhaps Flora best sums up just how empowering it is to be an auto driver, “Earlier, I worried about money. If something came up, I didn’t know if I could afford it. Today, if I need money, I take my auto out. I know I can earn the money I need. I set myself a target. Some days, I meet it and some days I don’t but I know I can always make it up tomorrow.”

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