Rows of pink and green e-rickshaws with happy faces greet you at the Statue of Unity complex in Kevadiya, Gujarat. There are 60 vehicles which ferry visitors on a 10-minute ride to this imposing landmark where Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel stands tall — and truly tall since this is the tallest statue in the world.
For women around Kevadiya, these pink e-rickshaws represent three Ps — power, possibility and potential. The fact that they went through a rigorous one-month training and then wrote an exam to earn their driving licenses means a lot to them.
Most of the women came to know about this programme through the ‘anganwadi projects’ in their respective areas and were trained by the Ektanagar Skill Development Centre. One of the biggest motivators for them was to “make a difference.”
Nimisha, a sprightly, confident and cheerful driver, proudly declares how she “is an atmanirbhar woman” today. Not only is she able to add to the family’s kitty but also believes that the opportunity has lent a completely new dimension to her “professional and personal life.” Today, these drivers welcome the fact that they are not financially dependent and have a decidedly more prominent say in family matters.
Sumitra, another driver, points out how e-rickshaws today “symbolise a new way of life for them”. As part of the lease structure, they have to deposit Rs 700 on weekdays and Rs 900 on the weekend to the agency offering them the autos.
Whatever they make over this amount is their earning as charging is for free. For most of the women there, the daily earnings range anywhere between Rs 1,000-1,400 and it is distinctly higher on weekends and holidays when the influx of visitors increases.
Tourists are as attracted to these pink e-rickshaws. As one of them, Raadhha Kundu, remarks, “The fleet of pink autos with all-women drivers came as a pleasant surprise. It is so good to see them empowered and independent… this is the actual progress of women.”
Another passenger, Joyeeta Purakayasta, chips in to say, “Whenever I see a girl from a background which reflects struggle, I see a family being empowered to lead a better life. The Statue of Unity paints a new picture of empowerment with a huge green dot.” Haimanti Ganguly concurred, "I think there's a certain emotion that builds up in us when we see a woman driving an auto. There's always a sense of pride and I can't help the smile."
The complex has become one of India’s first ‘electric vehicle only’ zones with these women in the driver’s seat. Patel would have doubtless approved of this change even as his statue towers over the landscape. For women who have always had to struggle in a patriarchal system, this transition is more than welcome.
It is also in this context that International Women’s Day becomes even more relevant for these unsung heroines who are finally coming into their own in what is perceived as a largely male-dominated bastion. Even in parts of Maharashtra where women autorickshaw drivers are now a more common sight, it is not easy to navigate in a terrain where men call the shots. The good part is that attitudes are changing except that this will take more time.