Women with electric rickshaws battle Delhi’s toxic air – and its sexism | India

Monika Devi is delighted to drive her autorickshaw. The 35-year-old has two reasons to be particularly proud as she navigates the incredibly congested streets of New Delhi.

She is one of the first women to drive one of the three-wheeled taxis that swarm the roads of the Indian capital. And she drives one of Delhi’s first e-rickshaws – part of the city’s drive to combat its notoriously dirty air.

“This city is not safe for women, and until now they had no choice but to travel in a rickshaw driven by a man, which can be scary at night,” said- she declared. “Plus, I hate pollution and am happy to do my part by driving an electric rickshaw that doesn’t give off toxic fumes.”

While some Indian cities such as Pune and Mumbai have female rickshaw drivers (but only a handful), for some reason public transport in New Delhi remains a male-only affair.

Indian women fly planes, sit in conference rooms and send rockets into space, but do not drive rickshaws or buses in Delhi. Sunita Choudhary became the city’s first female rickshaw driver 18 years ago, but since then no one else has taken up the challenge.

This type of low-level employment only attracts women from low-income families, but the conservative culture of this social stratum strongly resists the idea of ​​women being on the streets and interacting with men.

The very crowded streets of New Delhi. Photograph: Rajat Gupta/EPA

“My dad drives a rickshaw, but he opposed me at first,” Devi said. “He thought the male passengers would flirt with me or harass me. I had to fight him on that. I am not at all afraid to be on the roads. If women are afraid, how are we going to progress?

Her e-rickshaw was subsidized by the Delhi state government, which launched a fleet of 3,500 e-rickshaws – painted in sickly lilac rather than the standard yellow and green – and set aside 500 for women.

The din of car horns and Darwinian rules about who has priority on Indian roads (it’s the biggest vehicle, so buses and trucks are king) make driving stressful. The e-rickshaw itself is a fragile three-wheeled contraption with no seat belts or protection and exposed to fumes from other vehicles.

Dolly Maurya, 26, another driver, is in Saket near the Select City Walk mall, drenched in sweat in the 42-degree April heat.

For a woman, over the hours, finding a public toilet is not easy. “It’s easy for male drivers, they stop and pee on the side of the road, but for me it’s always a choice between drinking water because I’m thirsty or not. drink to avoid going to the bathroom,” Maurya said.

And then there are rude male rickshaw drivers who give them grief. While standing at a traffic light, two male drivers spot Maurya and laugh. “Look at this, now they’re taking our jobs too when they can barely tell their left from their right,” they laughed.

The rowdiness is countered by the warm appreciation of the passengers. “They take my number so they can call me if they go out at night,” Maurya said. “Mind you, I’m not sure what my dad and brothers will say about me going out after 8 p.m..”

His biggest worry is that the battery will run out far from a charging point. Delhi Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot predicts that drivers will never be more than 3km from a charging point, but that will take time. Until that happens, most electric rickshaw drivers will avoid long journeys that could leave them stranded on a deserted road.

The Delhi government is promoting electric rickshaws as part of its “paradigm shift” from fossil fuel to electric vehicles in an attempt to reduce air pollution. The city’s first electric bus started carrying passengers in January and there is a promise to add hundreds more soon.

But for Jyoti Pande Lavakare, founder of the Care for Air association, the 3,500 e-rickshaws are a grain of sand in the desert compared to the 90,000 traditional autorickshaws with their polluting two-stroke engines.

“We need to phase out all old polluting vehicles urgently. Starting with e-rickshaws is good, but you have to be much more ambitious to get e-rickshaws powered by renewable energy, not electricity. electricity from polluting coal-fired power plants,” Lavakare said.

Nearly 40 women are also being trained to drive the new automatic buses, both to give them work and for the convenience of passengers still haunted by the 2012 gang rape and death of a young woman on a commute. by bus in the capital.

For Devi, one thing stands out about her new job. “It’s the heady feeling of independence,” she says.

“It’s important for a woman not to depend on her father or her husband for money, and for me this is the first time that has happened.”

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