For Susieben Shah’s 23 women drivers, the glass ceiling takes on a new meaning each time they get behind the wheel. If it’s coming into her own for one, it’s finding a way out of poverty for another. And then, for most, it’s also about shattering stereotypes and forging an identity in a male bastion.
Shah, a lawyer, however, leads by example. When she is not in the corridors of the Bombay high court, she’s chasing investors making a pitch for her all-women taxi service in the city. While it looks like she has everybody eating out of her hand, Shah admits that running an all-women taxi service is a Herculean task. Her enterprise is quite unlike traditional, women-centric ventures, like making pickles or papads. First of all, she explains, one has work hard against prejudices about women as taxi drivers. “There is scepticism over women’s capacity in such a job, among both passengers and male taxi drivers.”
It was during the launch of her book, Legal Awareness amongst Women, that Renuka Choudhary, then minister for women and child welfare put the idea in Shah’s head of training women to become cabbies. Shah immediately warmed up to it. Her goal was simple: choose poor women in search of a job who carry no prejudice towards driving as a career. The lawyer soon found herself digging into her savings and starting an institute to train women to drive.
But, her enthusiasm was stymied by prejudices against women drivers. The situation was complex; women were already trained, but no one was ready to lend them any vehicle. That’s when Priyadarshini came up with its unique red-and-white taxis, in 2009. Sensing that it was the right time to start a women’s taxi service, rather than have her staff beg for taxis to drive, Shah bought a fleet of 20 taxis.
Today, the women behind the wheels, aged between 18 and 40 and dressed in black-and-pink-chequered salwar kameez, drive as far as Mahabaleshwar, Pune, Nashik and Surat for up to 12 hours a day. They charge Rs200 for the first 10km and Rs17 for every kilometre thereafter. With classes in yoga, self-defence, communication skills and managing accounts as well, the women ply four to five groups of passengers each day, earning about Rs15,000 per month.