Sakha cabs: of women, by women, for women

Sakha cabbies are outraged at the bad name the Uber tragedy has brought to their profession

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Puja Bhattacharjee | December 15, 2014


Twenty-three-year-old Khushi Prajapati has been working with Sakha for a couple of years
Twenty-three-year-old Khushi Prajapati has been working with Sakha for a couple of years

The Uber rape incident has brought radio taxi services under scrutiny. Women are not safe anywhere if they are alone with a man. But they need to go out and work, sometimes even at odd hours. What would the solution be then, a cab service driven only by women? The solution already exists in the form of Sakha which runs a cab service for women, by women. But with limited resources it will hardly be able to meet the rising demands that have shot up since the Uber incident. Nayantara Janardhan, chief operating officer, Sakha Consulting Wings Pvt. Ltd, says ever since the Uber rape case made headlines across the country, she has been getting frantic phone calls, a large number of them from the media. “We had witnessed a similar surge of calls after the December 16, 2012 gang-rape. But at that time a lot of expatriates and foreigners who had heard about our service were calling to confirm whether our service really exists. We also got calls from people volunteering to help us,” she says.

The Sakha cabbies are outraged at the bad name that has been brought to the driving profession by the Uber tragedy. “They feel sad that the image of cab drivers has taken a beating but at the same time they are happy to be a part of the solution,” says Janardhan. “The incident has also awakened latent fear in these women but they have been able to rationalise it,” she adds.

Sakha may be a part of the solution to women’s transportation problem but the women drivers have to fight stereotypes to break out of the mould and be part of the solution. “When a woman becomes a driver there is a huge impact on her life from family, relatives and community. The woman is breaking a gender stereotype. So, we frequently visit their families and offer counselling. The ones who work for Sakha have managed to build resources within her family,” says Janardhan. Sakha employs single, married and separated women.

During the training period the women, who otherwise feel secluded, are made to understand that they are not the only ones who are facing a hard time. Once they get the support and exposure, it becomes easier for them to challenge the gender roles forced upon them.

Sakha, a sister organisation of Azad foundation, has been running cabs for women and driven by women since 2010. In 2012, Sakha had only eight cabs. Now they have 14 cars and 21 women drivers. Unlike Meru or Easycabs, Sakha does not have metered cabs. Payment is calculated on the basis of total hours of service, the minimum being eight hours.

Initially, Sakha had applied for a radio taxi licence. But due to government rules mandating that a company operating a radio taxi service needs to have at least 50 cars, which have to be upgraded to 500 over a period of time, it did not qualify. As there are few women drivers, it is difficult to engage a Sakha cab at a short notice. Bookings have to be made in advance, which is one of the many disadvantages of the service.

Janardhan says initially the concept of Sakha was mocked at by people who believed it was impossible to implement the model in Delhi which is seen as unsafe for women. “We have successfully demonstrated that it can be done. We want the government to take forward this model, with or without Sakha’s assistance, as we do not have the resources to implement this model on a large scale. Public spaces are highly gendered. Although I do not like saying it but public transportation should have a quota for women drivers to make it a level-playing field,” she says.

Janardhan says the women have ample support from the organisation. An emergency response team is dispatched immediately to support the women if they face any trouble on the roads. “They have been instructed to call the police without hesitation if they feel threatened. The Delhi police have always been very supportive. Our cars are equipped with a GPS device and panic button. Somebody is always present to support them,” says Janardhan. Most of these women do not hesitate to do night duties as they understand that crime can happen during the day too. They have seen violence behind closed doors. We give them the option of not driving at night. 

Isn’t it awkward for these women to wait for long hours at mall parking or other parking areas while driving clients? Finding a toilet is a far bigger challenge for them, says Janardhan. “We have told them to go to malls, hospitals or nearby petrol pumps if they need to use the washroom,” she says. At night the women are often tailed by other cars who are amused to see a woman behind the wheels. To get rid of the nuisance, they drive into the nearest police station, hotel or hospital and, at times, dial 100. Janardhan says there are so many levels of imbalance that these women need all the support they can get to level the playing field. “When these women apply for a licence, they are harassed in many different ways. A woman from a well-to-do family wouldn’t face the same problems,” she says. “There is an immediate discrimination upon seeing a woman from the economically weaker section.

They are scrutinised far more than their well-to-do counterparts,” she adds. However, empowered by their sense of independence, most of these women have refused to tolerate violence in their married lives. Some have even negotiated relationships of their choice.

Safety is an inclusive process. If at night more women were to be seen in public places, which are occupied by men only, then that would be a beginning of that inclusive process, adds Janardhan.

In the driving seat
Twenty-three-year-old Khushi Prajapati (in picture, left) has been working with Sakha for a couple of years. Easily mistaken for a teenager, Prajapati makes one wonder how she copes with her demanding profession. But once she starts talking, all doubts dissipate.

She wasn’t always so feisty and confident. Starting out in the male-dominated profession was harder than she had thought. There were the usual jeers and taunts from other (men) drivers on the road. Recounting her first duty in a housing complex, she said, her male counterparts taunted her saying, now that women had started driving they would soon be out of jobs. “Once I was parking my car in a hotel when a man offered to park it for me. I refused, but while reversing the car I asked him to guide me. He rudely told me to park the car without assistance since I pretended to know better. Once I had parked the car, the other drivers there were very impressed,” she says.

It is not that she never feels vulnerable while driving at night, especially in deserted areas. But she says she is far bolder than the women constables of Delhi police who she used to ferry frequently. “They openly admitted that if three or four men attacked them, they would be completely defenceless. I am more resourceful at protecting myself than them.”

The story appeared in December 16-31, 2014, issue

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