For many women in the city, sexual harassment is not the only problem they need to deal with on a regular basis. Commuting by autorickshaws can be just as daunting and sometimes even outright dangerous.
Alisha Sima, a young professional, recounts a harrowing story about an argument with an auto driver gone berserk. “I don’t feel safe travelling in the city because it’s not just about putting up with lewd comments from men on the streets. This one time, I got into an argument with an auto driver over the fare shown by the meter and altercation escalated fast. He actually slapped me in the end. I can’t feel safe after that,” she says.
Despite repeated pleas from women, auto drivers’ unions are not open to sensitising their members. However, the Autorickshaw Drivers Union, one of the biggest unions in the city with a membership of 22,000, claims its members are well-behaved.
“Auto drivers who are part of the ARDU have to display a badge on the right side of the auto. We have a database of their names and numbers. We tell our members to respect their commuters. If someone from our union misbehaves, you can call us and we will take appropriate action,” avers Srinivas Murthy, vice-president of ARDU.
For Marianne Thomas, a counselor, an unfortunate experience has left her thinking twice about hailing an auto ever again. “I didn’t notice there was anything wrong at first, because the driver was smiling and he kept asking me to help him with the right change. But soon enough, I realised that he was actually flashing me the whole time he was talking to me. I was too shocked to do anything. I didn’t even note down his number. I just turned away and walked home,” she recollects the nightmarish incident.
Another woman, on condition of anonymity, says that returning home once from an IPL match turned out to be one of the scariest experiences of her life.
“I just wish I had hailed a cab, but it was too late, and I agreed to pay the driver an obscene amount of money to get home. But he kept taking a longer route despite my pleas and kept turning around and gawking at me and passing lewd comments on what I was wearing. There were no other vehicles on the road at that time. At one point, I got a friend on the phone and told her to call the police if I didn’t message her in 15 minutes. That seemed to jolt him into his senses and I got back home safe. I don’t remember being this scared ever in my life,” she says.
KR Srinivas, transport commissioner, opines that not only is the transport department ill-equipped to handle such cases, they do not have a control room or any such infrastructure to handle such cases either. “We have only 50% of the total 600 inspectors in our department. They are swamped with work within the Regional Transport Offices (RTO),” he rues.
Srinivas adds that while the inspectors can seize vehicles during test-drives if there are problems, the sheer number of autos in the city work against them.
“Right now, the police are the ones who handle these cases. When the driving institutions planned in Bangalore and Dharwad come up, we can sensitise those who come there. But that’s all we can do for now,” he gives up.