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Pink is the colour of self-reliance

In Jaipur, a growing team of underprivileged women are driving their way to financial empowerment

The Pink City Rickshaw Co. brigade. Photographs courtesy ACCESS Development Services
The Pink City Rickshaw Co. brigade. Photographs courtesy ACCESS Development Services

Najma Bano’s life in Jaipur used to follow an even path. She would tend to her duties as wife, mother and caretaker of the home, as she had been taught to do. Her world encompassed the colony she lived in, a slum which, as a microcosm of the city, provided her with all she needed by way of emotional and social interaction.

Little wonder, then, that she reacted with surprise when Radhika Kumari, who founded the Pink City Rickshaw Co. (PCRC) brigade, and her team of volunteers approached her with an idea. The PCRC is an initiative launched in practice last year by non-profit ACCESS Development Services, which works with women from marginalized backgrounds.

To Najma’s mind, the idea was outrageous. They wanted her, a woman well past 40, reclusive and unlettered, to not just step out into the world, but drive an electric autorickshaw on the tourist trail.

I heard Najma tell her story in December at a women at work conference in Jaipur, sitting sideways on stage, her face often hidden by her dupatta. Her voice was soft, almost hesitant and shy, but she told us of her journey from reluctant trainee to confident trainer.

Once convinced she could learn what others could, she braved the training programme to master the vehicle that would be her passport to self-reliance. The hurdles of language; of interacting with “white men" and tourists; of facing the taunts of autorickshaw drivers who felt women had no place in their domain—she overcame these one at a time. As her confidence and expertise grew, Najma was chosen to train newer recruits.

Like Najma, Anita Mahawar also drives tourists around Jaipur for 4 hours a day. Mahawar, who shared the stage with Najma, is in her late 20s, has a master’s degree, and experience of working as a home guard at Amer Fort. She finds her work with the PCRC more lucrative and empowering. “I told myself that if tourists can pay Rs1,100 for an elephant ride, they can pay us for a guided tour," she said. She said she could shout right back when taxi drivers hurled taunts at her. And as I heard her on stage, I did not doubt that.

Najma and Mahawar are two of the 50 women who are part of the PCRC brigade. The project has taken time to plan, but it is their first tourist season, so issues are still being ironed out. They are trying to see what to do in the off season, i.e. the summer months.

Radhika Kumari, who heads the organization, is enthusiastic as she talks about the PCRC, an offering she believes can be replicated in other cities.

The autorickshaws, one of which stood outside the conference hall, are like roomy “convertibles" that allow the canopy to be folded away on pleasant days. They are noiseless, and don’t emit the smoke or fumes commonly associated with three-wheel vehicles. The rickshaws come with ergonomically designed seats, mechanical improvements for greater safety, a locker for keeping clients’ belongings safe, a mobile charger, a water bottle/newspaper holder and city maps.

Karshan Verma, a PCRC driver, next to her e-autorickshaw.

The look and specifications was the easy part, Kumari says. Getting the women to wear distinctive uniforms to stand out among other auto-drivers was not. Kumari chipped away at the resistance, taking her trainees to a mall, where they saw women guards in uniform, and realized uniforms could impart both authority and individuality.

It would usually take 10 hours at the wheel for an autorickshaw driver to make a profit. To make it a workable idea for women who had to run homes and would not be able to spare so much time, the PCRC came up with four tourist routes. Four hours on any of these routes would enable the women not only to meet their personal expenses, but make a profit too. ACCESS underwrites the expense on uniforms, battery replacement and other maintenance issues.

The more ambitious ones can do two such trips on some days, adding to their earnings considerably. The profits depend on each woman’s initiative. In addition, as most of their clients are high-end foreign tourists, they automatically get tips of up to 20%.

The women learnt quickly and progressed from using sign language to speaking a smattering of foreign language words, as Najma manages to do. The tourists do their bit too, using language guides, and, by the end of the trip, both driver and rider are happy.

Kumari is now planning to allow customized tour options, as well as an app, IVRS, or interactive voice response, to help clients call and communicate with them.

Not surprisingly, despite Jaipur being perceived as a tradition-bound city, support has been forthcoming from many agencies. Niche hotels and travel companies recruit the services of these autorickshaw drivers in pink uniforms as part of their offering of out-of-the-usual experiences to clients.

The company hopes to expand to 200 drivers soon even as many of the current 50 members are on their way to becoming empowered part-owners of the company. ACCESS Development has already established a public limited company, with support from HSBC—and most of the women have invested in some share.

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