In August last year, Sharmila was among eleven women — nine from Haryana and one each from Rajasthan and Delhi — from different backgrounds who joined the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC) fleet of bus drivers.
They made headlines as the first batch under ‘Mission Parivartan’ — a joint venture of the Delhi government and automaker Ashok Leyland to induct women drivers into DTC and cluster buses for promoting women’s safety in public transport. They underwent a comprehensive training programme where they were also taught how to repair a bus in case it breaks down.
But nothing could brace them for the pitfalls that awaited them in a male-dominated field.
“Some men don’t know how to respect women, it’s very difficult to tackle them,” said Sharmila, 35, driving her bus towards Sarai Kale Khan.
Harassed day and night
A former government school cook in Haryana, Ms. Sharmila said she takes the morning route due to safety issues. “It is very difficult because, at night, everything is uncertain. Even though we possess powers, we are still women. [Men] look at us in a way we feel uncomfortable.”
“At night, most men board the bus inebriated. They can barely speak, and they raise their voices if I try to say something. It gets difficult,” she added.
Neetu Devi, 25 faces this problem even in the daytime. “Not only do the male drivers make us feel uncomfortable, but so do passengers.” Ms. Neetu, who holds a junior basic training (JBT) diploma and an M.A. degree, had a stable teaching job in Hisar, but wanted to become a bus driver against all odds.
She said pickpockets, who either board the bus alone or with an associate, are another menace. “They roam around with blades in their hand and we fear them.”
Sharing a recent incident while she was driving towards Old Delhi, Ms. Neetu said, “A few pickpockets boarded the and told me to stop without a bus stand nearby. I refused, but then they started threatening me.”
“On another occasion, I was waiting at a red light and two men opened my [driver’s] door and started talking to me. I got scared and shut it,” she added.
Taunts by male peers
For most women drivers, the harassment extends to not just leers and threats, but sexist comments too. Seema Devi, 36, said that if their vehicle breaks down at any point, men usually taunt them by saying “If you don’t know how to drive, why did you even become a driver?”.
“If we drive slow [under the speed limit], they ask us to speed up and say that men drive much,” Ms. Seema said.
“What is more heartbreaking is they taunt us by saying ‘Since when did women start following rules?’ As if we don’t have an identity of our own,” she rued.
According to Ms. Neetu, the women currently work under a one-year contract, and the Transport Department has decided to pay them on a per kilometre basis.
Fighting old mindsets and harassment is part of the job for these female drivers. They cover themselves in a certain way and make sure to speak boldly. Sharmila said no woman should ever feel unsafe when they board the bus. “The female bus marshals that work with us understand our plight. It is like a never-ending cycle,” Ms. Seema said.