LUCKNOW: In 2018, 45-year-old Sushila was selling eggs to support her family of 11. On a whim, she approached a person in her colony in Prayagraj to help her purchase an e-rickshaw. Three years down the line, the grandmother of two can be seen at the Prayagraj railway station during the early morning hours, ferrying passengers across the city and saying that she has never felt more liberated.
Sushila is one of 80 women who have been empowered across the three cities of Prayagraj, Varanasi and Lucknow to break into what has traditionally been a male dominated field: driving e-rickshaws. Helping them into the profession is a startup, SMV Green Solutions, which started the project with three main agendas — empowerment of women; promotion of green transport, and providing safe public transport for women.
“I lost my husband some years ago, so I am the eldest in the family now. It was entirely my decision to start this work even though I had never driven any vehicle before this. I was sick of selling eggs and wanted to do something new, something bigger,” said Sushila. The class 5 drop out from Varanasi starts her day at 2.30am and earns as much as Rs 1,500 on good days.
Her counterpart across town, 34-year-old Sarita, initially wanted her husband to drive an e-rickshaw but when he refused, she decided to take up the work herself. “This has let me spend time in the house looking after my children and also take passengers” she said, adding that she was earning much more now than when she worked as a cook till 2018.
While Sarita doesn’t venture out at night, she said that a small camera in her e-rickshaw has helped provide her security. “I have been lucky that till now, I have not had any bad experience with passengers. In fact, most people are more polite to me because I am a woman,” she said.
It has not been so easy for Poonam in Lucknow. A keen driver and encouraged by her father to take up e-rickshaw driving as a profession, Poonam laughs that her husband never let her touch his vehicle saying that if they ever had a fight, she would run away with his car. Now, as an e-rickshaw driver, she says running away from situations is not an option. “I get all kinds of passengers, from drunks to those who refuse to pay. I don’t get hassled and have steeled myself against these incidents. In fact, the police know us and help us whenever they can,” said the former nurse.
Naveen Krishna, who started SMV about seven years back, said he is focused on empowering women as micro-entrepreneurs, owners and drivers of clean energy e-rickshaws. The Vahini Project is aimed at providing financial independence to women.“We train the women, provide post sale services to them, coordinate with the police to ensure their safety. Till now, we have managed to train 71 women in Prayagraj, seven in Lucknow and two in Varanasi. It was a challenge, especially in the conservative parts of eastern UP, to convince women to step out but now the women we have trained are bringing in others,” he said.
The project is not without its hiccups, says Krishna. Banks don’t easily lend to women for purchase of commercial vehicles while many of the women who are part of the project have never handled or are used to computers, a challenge when they visit RTO offices to take licence test. “These are some institutional problems which we need to address,” Krishna said.