It was a blistering hot afternoon in the Old City area of Jaipur. A bright pink e-rickshaw rolled to a halt at the signal. A woman dressed in a crisp salwar suit and a vest with a name tag sat at the helm. Passers-by stared at her. Many looked back more than once to make sure their eyes weren’t deceiving them. But the woman sat there, untroubled by their looks, patiently waiting for the signal to let up. As she then sped away, the words Pink City Rickshaw Company (PCRC), painted in white on the side of her striking rickshaw, glinted in the sunlight. “Before we started, there were no women rickshaw drivers in the city,” says Radhika Kumari, who heads the rickshaw company.
An initiative of the not-for-profit ACCESS Development Services’ (ACCESS Dev) Jaipur chapter, the project is at aimed at improving the lives of poor urban women. PCRC trains women living in slums in and around Jaipur to take tourists on customized tours around the old city. “We have tie-ups with five-star hotels across the city for clients,” says Kumari. Besides empowering women socially and economically, the company also seeks to be environmentally sustainable with its specially modified e-rickshaws. What started out with a small group of women in 2017 is today a company of 50 women drivers, with some of them owning equity in it themselves. But getting there was not easy.
The challenges of breaking gender stereotypes
“There were very few takers in the beginning,” says Kumari, whose team started attending self-help group (SHG) meetings in December 2016 and reaching out to women in different parts of the city through other NGOs. The women couldn’t understand why they simply didn’t teach them sewing or help them make lacquer bangles instead of asking them to engage in what they thought was a “male’s occupation”. “There was a lot of hesitation in the women and resistance from their communities,” says Kumari, “Their families would ask us why we want to make them rickshaw walas.” But after much convincing, they finally managed to bring the first batch of women onboard.
Then came the next challenge – training the women. Their families were unwilling to let them be trained by unfamiliar male rickshaw drivers. “When you’re teaching someone to drive, there will be occasional physical contact, and unfortunately, there are no rickshaw training schools for women. So our team learned how to drive first and then taught them,” smiled Radhika. It was an unnerving experience for the women in the beginning. “The people who disliked our initiative most were the male e-rickshaw drivers. They felt it to be their domain and would aggressively try to bully the women out of the project,” adds Kumari. The women, who were trained all across the city, had to contend with catcalls, jeers, and even deliberate collisions by male drivers. Even after 10 months on the road, this is something that has not changed. But what did change is the women themselves.
Asha has been working with PCRC for 10 months. She was one of the first women to join
“We spent a lot of time counseling them to build their confidence. We had to make sure they are self-reliant,” says Kumari. The most surprising part to her about the first batch of women that joined was that none of them had ever held a job before. “We believed that women who already had a little work experience would be more willing to join the initiative,” she says. But those that actually dared to come were women who had never had any independence – who had never even gone to the nearby market without an escort. Today they figure out directions to hotels and pick up points by themselves. They’re curious about GPS. And they’ve picked up a smattering of English words and communicate with foreign tourists without hesitation. Whereas earlier, they were terrified of the hostile male rickshaw drivers, now, they pay no attention to them. “If anyone tries to hit their vehicle or come from the wrong direction, they stop them to call the cops,” says Kumari.
The women have shed their inhibitions when it comes to their clothes as well. The idea of wearing anything other than sarees with their heads covered would have, at one point, been unacceptable to them. “They wear salwar suits now because it's more practical. They buy hair buns and make sure that their name tags are straight,” smiles Radhika, “They’re really proud of their jobs and the company.”
The most important outcome of the initiative, however, has been their economic independence. Women who’ve never had any control over finances or say in financial decisions are finally earning money that they see as their own. “My budget is bigger and I can spend on my children,” says Sunita, who has been working with PCRC for 6 months. “I love driving the rickshaw and talking to foreign tourists. It’s something I never imagined I would do,” she added.
Sunita (first from the left) also works at a women-run petrol pump in Jaipur
Source: ACCESS Development Services, Jaipur
Kumari credits the success of the company to the sheer willpower of the women. She recalls the story of Shehnaz, who wanted to join the company last year. A 40-year-old grandmother, she had a simple reason for her decision – to do something for herself for a change. “She told me that both her husband and son were e-rickshaw drivers but they refused to let her drive when she asked,” said Kumari. So when Shehnaz heard that someone was teaching women how to drive them, she signed up to prove to her family that she can do it herself and be better at it than them.
PCRC’s way forward
Just as the bicycle liberated American and European women in the 1890s, the PCRC’s e-rickshaws are becoming machines of freedom for these economically and socially disadvantaged women in Jaipur. After a promising start in the company’s first tourist season, its team is already making plans for the future. “The plan has always been for it to become a company of 200 women drivers who run it themselves,” says Kumari. She hopes it will evolve from a social development program to a social enterprise that is here to stay. “We want it to become such that every tourist that comes to Jaipur wants to tour with the rickshaw company,” she concludes.