LGBT Cab Service Gears Up in a Country Where Being Gay Is a Crime

The first-of-its-kind company in India hopes to empower the LGBT community through employment opportunities.

Sanjeevani in the driver’s seat during the launch of Wings Rainbow, a radio cab service in Mumbai, India. (Photo: Arijit Sen/‘Hindustan Times’ via Getty Images)

Jan 22, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

Wearing a sparkling sari and a signature driver’s cap, Sanjeevani, a transgender woman, is learning to traverse Mumbai’s city streets with a smile on her face as part of a new fleet of cab drivers.

Along with four other LGBT drivers, Sanjeevani (identified only by her first name) on Wednesday started a training program with Wings Rainbow, a cab company specifically comprising LGBT drivers, The Times of India reports.

Obtaining a permanent driver’s license can take up to a year in India, so the Wings Rainbow crew won’t start taking customers until 2017. But the drivers-in-training already have high hopes for their new career path.

“Finally people will know what we’re capable of,” Sanjeevani told the The Times of India. She said she’s been denied employment in the past because of her gender identity.

From left: Sharika, Sharma, and Sanjeevani during the launch of Wings Rainbow. (Photo: Arijit Sen/‘Hindustan Times’ via Getty Images)

Taxi company Wings Travels and local LGBT advocacy group The Humsafar Trust will jointly oversee and fund the training program and hope to expand the endeavor into a nationwide program. Wings Rainbow expects to turn five LGBT drivers into 1,500.

“The LGBT community, especially transgenders, have very few economic opportunities because of the huge stigma that they still face,” Pallav Patankar, director of programs at The Humsafar Trust, told Reuters. “We hope that this will set the ball rolling and that it will open up other such opportunities for them.”

In 2014, India’s supreme court ruled that transgender and intersex people should be recognized as a third gender. Along with affirming that transgender people are entitled to the same civil rights as other citizens, the high court also tasked state officials with developing benefits programs to assist the transgender community.

Yet advocates say rights for transgender people are undermined by laws regarding sexual orientation. Consensual sex between two gay adults remains criminalized under India’s penal code, pushing both gay and transgender citizens to the outskirts of society. Watchdog group Human Rights Watch reports that LGBT Indians are frequently harassed by police because of their sexual orientation or gender identity—harassment that perpetuates and is fueled by stigma against the LGBT community. This marginalization often forces members of the LGBT community to turn to sex work or begging to survive.

Activists at The Humsafar Trust hope that becoming a cab driver will be an attractive alternative. A driver can make up to Rs 15,000 ($221) per month—a salary that falls in line with average wages in India.

“We want them to be eventual entrepreneurs and own these vehicles,” Arun Kharat, Wings Travels founder and director, told The Hindu. “We want to ensure that the LGBT community in India enjoys the same rights and livelihood opportunities in India as their counterparts in the West.”