Like many middle-class women in New Delhi, I rely on the ubiquitous green-and-yellow, three-wheeled motor vehicle known as the auto-rickshaw as my default transport option. “Autos,” as they are known, offer last-mile connectivity even in the remotest areas of town.
But auto drivers have a bad rap among women, and much of it is well earned.
The news media is full of reports of sexual assault by auto drivers; in September, one was arrested for allegedly raping a mentally challenged girl in the Gazipur area, on the city’s outskirts. Then on Dec. 8, Uber's car service in Delhi was banned after one of its drivers was accused of allegedly raping a 26-year-old female passenger. As a result, many women dread having to hail a ride after dark.
Yet women depend on auto-rickshaws to bring them to their front door or across town; buses are hot and crowded, and they and the Metro can subject women to unwelcome physical contact by men. Last year a fashion designer I know barely escaped the clutches of an auto driver who flashed a knife at her after she argued with him about the fare. A sudden traffic jam enabled her to jump out of the vehicle. A copywriter acquaintance was threatened with a wooden club a couple of years ago after she refused extra charges.
But since the notorious Dec. 16, 2012, gang rape in New Delhi on a bus, attitudes about the right of women to be free from harassment and violence have been changing in India. The place many Delhi women may feel the change first is the auto-rickshaw.
A local mental health organization, Manas Foundation, has begun trying to change auto drivers’ mind-set and behavior by training them in respectful treatment of women. Said Monica Kumar, a clinical psychologist and managing trustee of Manas Foundation, “Auto drivers have played their role in creating Delhi’s image as a town hostile to women. But with this program, we want to turn that image around.”
Classes are offered at two organizations run by private companies in collaboration with the government of Delhi, the National Capital Territory.
At the Ashok Leyland Driver Training Institute in suburban Burari, auto drivers queue up by the hundreds every day to run their vehicles through a mandatory annual test. They can’t complete the test until they sit through two lectures, one on traffic rules and, since Manas got involved, the other on women’s safety.
Since January, Manas’ program trainers Smita Tewari Pant and Achyuta Nanda Dyansamantara have provided two sessions a day, six days a week, for close to 150 auto drivers per session.
More than 30,000 drivers have attended the one-hour training, and the program aims to train 100,000 of Delhi’s 120,000 drivers over the next year.
Through an approach it calls SPEC—for social responsibility, professionalism, empathy, and care—Manas appeals to drivers’ pride by instilling them with a share of the responsibility for women’s safety in the city. “When a woman boards an auto, her goal is to get from place A to B safely,” Dyansamantara told one recent class. “You can help her achieve that.”
The training module was designed in consultation with Kamla Bhasin, a feminist activist with more than 40 years of experience in gendersensitization training. As European and American institutions, which have different expectations for how women employees, clients, and customers ought to be treated, establish themselves on the subcontinent, gender sensitivity is an issue India struggles with as it develops. The Gender Training Institute, for instance, has been offering similar classes to companies such as Pizza Hut since 1997.
“We didn’t go to [the drivers] pointing a finger,” Bhasin explained. “We offered respect, friendship, and an offer of partnership in this campaign. They felt good about the greater sense of responsibility it gave them.”
She said that while gender training is nothing new, the size and scale of this project makes it exceptional.
We didn’t go to the drivers pointing a finger. We offered respect, friendship, and partnership. They felt good about the greater sense of responsibility it gave them.
Kamla Bhasin, feminist activist
Pant said that with no existing model for how to train auto drivers in gender sensitivity, Manas’ training has been a work in progress. One easy lesson: Drivers are discouraged from placing sexually suggestive photos in their vehicles, because many women find them offensive and even threatening. “But there is absolutely no problem if it’s a picture of a god,” Pant said.
Other situations are more complex. Kumar said, “Sometimes auto drivers don’t know what to do when faced with tricky situations, such as when a woman who has had too much alcohol climbs into the auto late at night.” What if she passes out? What if she is misbehaving? What if she can’t decide where to go? Auto drivers are told to not judge a woman if she is drunk or scantily clad. “She is just your passenger,” they are advised.
Auto drivers seem a jaded and discouraged bunch. Most earn only about $4–$5 a day. They may resent that educated women are passing them on India’s income ladder and are now their employers for at least part of the day. Their level of education can range from minimal literacy to elementary school completion. “You have to use language and examples relevant to their lives if you’re going to reach out to them,” Pant explained.
The notorious rape that inspired the training inevitably gets a mention in the lecture. Dyansamantara informs attendees of the loss in tourism that resulted, as many women from other countries and Indian states were scared off from visiting the city. That’s a loss to the drivers’ pocketbooks.
At the other training center, run by car manufacturer Maruti Suzuki, class sizes are smaller, enabling instructors to vary and experiment with their teaching methods. Trainers ask auto drivers whether men and women can perform tasks such as cooking and plowing. Trainers gently explain, using examples, that women are capable of both, and deconstruct drivers’ notions of gender and sex. “We try to drive home the point that these perceptions are society’s creations,” Pant said, that they are not determined by physiology or genetics.
At the conclusion of the training, attendees receive a booklet summarizing the lecture. Statements such as “Real men don’t participate in violence—they stop it” are highlighted. Badges declaring “Women’s respect is my duty” and bumper stickers announcing “This responsible auto respects and protects women” are handed out.
As a follow-up resource, Manas operates a driver help line. The organization also regularly calls drivers after the training, asking whether they have encountered situations involving female passengers that were not covered, and opening a two-way means of communication.
At first, though, some drivers don’t seem that open to a one-way means of communication. During a recent lecture, even as most drivers nodded in affirmation and appeared to listen attentively—or at least politely—a nonconformist whisper could be heard: “This is just time-pass.”
However, judging by responses of drivers in the class I attended, most seemed aware that they could be arrested for sexual harassment under the Indian Penal Code.
But resentment can run high. One indignant driver, his face flanked by gray hair and a gray beard, scowled, “Some women shout at me, ‘Auto, will you go to Connaught Place?’ I’m not an auto!”
Dyansamantara recalled a time when the leader of an auto drivers’ union confronted employees of Manas, asking why it was targeting only auto drivers.
“Acceptance level was really low at the time,” Pant said. Many participants would ask to leave in the middle of class. “As the training now has good word of mouth, the response is much more positive.” She added that since the program launched, the trainers have improved and become more confident.
Yet driver Devraj Singh, 55, thinks the exercise is futile. “Auto drivers are a motley bunch. Behavior with customers is a highly individual matter. Good drivers will be good, and bad will be bad,” he said.
Vinay Kumar, a younger driver, said he would affix the Manas sticker to his vehicle. “I have always vouched for women,” he said.
In early 2015,an independent evaluation and monitoring process will give a more rigorous assessment of how the program is faring.
Anecdotally, when I ask auto drivers their opinion of the training, most say they found it useful. So every time I spot an auto with the Manas sticker on its rear bumper, I feel a spark of hope.
UPDATED 12/8/14, 3:02pm