Last month, when Pooja Devi, 32, from the small town of Basohli in Kathua district, stepped into the Jammu-Kathua road bus union office complex at Jammu city’s bus stand, she was filled with trepidation. Although she had a driving licence for heavy vehicles, she wasn’t sure she would be allowed to drive a passenger bus.
“I thought I would not even pass the driving test,” says the mother of two boys and a girl. She had overcome family resistance to chase her childhood dream—and on 24 December 2020, she got the keys to a bus plying the Jammu-Kathua route.
Devi has always loved being in the driver’s seat. Growing up, she would take the wheel of cars owned by relatives, and learnt to drive a four-wheeler as a young adult. Six years ago, she got a commercial driving licence for light vehicles and began chauffeuring passengers from her home district to Jammu and other places. Two years ago, she moved to Jammu city, took a loan to buy a car and started ferrying passengers within the city.
She had always wanted to drive a heavy vehicle, though, so she applied for a bus driver’s licence. She then joined a driving institute in Jammu as an instructor, earning ₹10,000 a month, like her male colleagues.
It was a hard life, however, for ₹3,000 went every month towards rent for the flat she and her family were living in. Driving a passenger bus, she hoped, would allow her to earn more. That hasn’t happened since the pandemic struck, and she has ended up earning ₹500 a day.
When Devi approached Sardar Kuldeep Singh, the bus union president, in the yard outside the main bus stand in Jammu, he and the other men were surprised. They thought she was a driver’s wife, seeking help.
When she requested them to give her a chance to drive a passenger bus, they were reluctant. It was the first time any of them had met a woman bus driver.
One test drive later, the union president handed her the keys to a 48-seater bus. A male conductor accompanied her on the Jammu-Kathua route, showing her the stops along the way.
Devi opted for this route, which takes about two hours to reach her home district, about 150km from Jammu. She does one round trip between Jammu and Kathua in a day.
On her first day on the job, she was a little nervous. She worried that some passengers, especially the men, might refuse to board once they found out that she would be driving the bus. “But I was welcomed by all, it felt good to have people trust me,” she says. Now, her seven-year-old son occasionally accompanies her.
“The women are especially delighted to find a woman driver, something they had never seen before,” says Devi.
During her first trip, some women passengers even began calling their family members in excitement. “They told them a woman driver was bringing them home,” she recalls.
It hasn’t been an easy ride though. Her husband, a labourer, and her in-laws didn’t entirely approve of her work; they would have preferred her to stay home. “I told my husband clearly that if he doesn’t like what I am doing and stops me from working, we can separate,” she says. “In the end, he allowed me to do what I wanted.”
Devi believes more women need to come forward and take up all kinds of professions and trades.
“If their families—especially their husbands, their fathers and their brothers—support them, you will find many women pursuing their dreams and earning a living from any work they want to do,” she says.
Once she began driving the bus and her story was written about in the local media, many people, including elderly men and women, would congratulate her. But Devi also knows that most of these very same people would stop their daughters, sisters and wives from taking up a job like hers. “I find such appreciation empty,” she says. “It proves that you don’t really mean it.”
Singh, the bus union president, impressed by Devi’s example, believes more women should come forward to drive buses. “Many passengers look forward to, and even wait to board, her bus,” he says. “It’s good to see people admiring her and her work.”
Over the years, Devi says, she has seen a few young women driving smaller passenger vehicles in Jammu—but not a single woman in Jammu or Kathua driving a passenger bus. Increasingly, she says, she gets calls from girls and women who want to pursue driving as a career.
“They seek my advice and I am happy to guide them and train them,” Devi says. “I can imagine they would have been told the same things as I was at home and discouraged from pursuing their interests.”
Majid Maqbool is a Srinagar-based journalist and editor.