This Tamil Nadu woman driver is creating her 'auto' nomy
In Villupuram town, yellow-coloured autorickshaws whizz past you menacingly at all hours but one makes women commuters genuinely cheerful. At the wheel is a 43-year-old K Chitra, a rarity in the town.For Chitra, venturing into a hitherto male-dominated bastion was barely a resolve. It was sheer passion.
She began driving an autorickshaw at a young age of 21, in 1999, soon after the Union Territory of Puducherry started providing licences to women.It wasn’t easy for her. People around her raised eyebrows. But over the years, she has learnt to take it all in her stride.
Today, several government officers, lawyers, students, and many women are her trusted customers, who commute only by her autorickshaw. “When women drive, it is a bit of a joke for men, but definitely not for women passengers. They feel absolutely safe in the company of a woman driver,” says Chitra, who stations her autorickshaw at the Villupuram old bus stand.
Her day begins at 4:30 am. She has to prepare breakfast and lunch for the family before leaving for a round of school trips. Between dropping children at schools in the morning and picking them up again in the evening, she takes up other trips.“I earn close to `300-400 a day if rides are normal. During festivals, I earn more, sometimes even `2,000 per day,” she says.
The rides may go on till late night if any of her regular woman customers need transportation. “Some women certainly feel scared about late night auto rides. For my regular customers, I offer a ride in the early hours, too, if they inform me beforehand,” says Chitra, hailing from Puducherry.
Even after two decades, it is unusual for a woman to drive an autorickshaw in a town like Villupuram, Chitra says. “People are shocked to see a woman driving an auto. There have been instances where passengers would underestimate my skills just because of my gender. That includes the police. They always ask for my papers while male drivers would get a pass at check posts,” she adds.
Gender discrimination also has an effect on bargaining rates for a ride, says Chitra.“People demand much lower rates for a ride than what they would pay a man. This was very stressful in the beginning but now I have developed the habit of suggesting the fare first and making it clear that I would not take a rupee less. But the courage to do so comes with experience,” she says.
Chitra does not shy away from challenging gender norms when it comes to the more physically arduous parts of her job either. For instance, she refuses help from men in loading and unloading heavy goods from the autorickshaw. “It could be tonnes of rice or several sacks of goods, but I do it myself as I feel women are powerful enough to do what they want regardless of the job,” she asserts.
Over the years, she has broken stereotypes and become a beacon of hope and trust to many women passengers. No wonder, women, generally nervous to travel alone at night in Villupuram, trust Chitra.