Women taxi drivers proud of ferrying the pregnant

By Daiaphira Kharsati

SHILLONG: They grabbed the opportunity to get behind the wheels and broke into the male-dominated bastion 7 years ago by driving the pink and white taxis in Shillong.
Meet Phirani Marbaniang, Medalin Khongngain and Markynti Mylliempdah — the only three remaining women who now drive the taxis to ferry pregnant women and sick newborns to hospitals under the Janani Shishu Suraksha Karyakaram (JSSK).
Marbaniang said the three were in the taxi cab service for a few months, till they were called to join the National Health Mission (then called the National Rural Health Mission) in August, 2011.
The smiles on their faces go to show they are happy to be of service to fellow women folk who are in need of assistance. The problem they face, however, is delayed payment of salary.
“The salary is good but the problem is with the delayed payment,” they said in unison adding that they have to shell out money from their own pockets for fuel expenses.
Though the pink and white taxis were launched with much fanfare in 2011, the government’s ambitious effort failed to generate the desired results due to poor response.
There were 7 women who came forward to be part of the taxi brigade which slowly came down to just three. “They perceived that ferrying passengers around does not bring much profit. There are some who are shy to take up driving,” Marbaniang said.
Khongngain said the women folk should have taken the opportunity to drive the vehicles provided by the government at a time when unemployment is on the rise.
They often encounter prostitutes while going around on their calls.
Marbaniang said, “Instead of prostitution, why not drive a cab? We speak from our experience of coming across women who take to flesh trade to earn a living. Driving a cab is another way of earning a decent livelihood.”
They take pride in being drivers of the JSSK service as it provides them with an opportunity to help pregnant women and sick newborns.
Driving a passenger taxi was not a piece of cake for these ladies in the initial months; they would be unnerved by the strange looks passengers would give them, and discouragement that came from some quarters.
The trio recalled the first experience of getting behind the wheels of a cab and said they felt shy.  Khongngain said, “The people looked surprised at seeing a woman driving and not a man! There would be some men who would intentionally bump into us. But after 1-2 weeks, it was fine.”
She said the passengers were used to the black and yellow taxis and would hesitate to enter the ones driven by women.
Having driven to different places, Khongngain says, “In the end, all that matters is courage. We have to keep pushing ourselves.”
On the issue of safety and security, Marbaniang said they were alert and usually got home early during the days they drove taxis and even now when they are under JSSK. “We are still women, we don’t want to risk ourselves.” They give their phone numbers only to trusted people, mostly ASHAs, Anganwadi workers and some doctors who usually call them. The receipts are submitted to the NHM.
Asked if their male counterparts support them, the trio said some do and some don’t.
Other than the delayed payment, the common problem faced by them is traffic congestion especially when ferrying pregnant women.
Meanwhile, general secretary of East Khasi Hills Local Taxi Welfare Association (EKHLTWA), Wandonbok Jyrwa expressed concern that women do not come forward.
“Women are most welcome to join the drivers’ fraternity. Driving is not only a male-domain,” he said.
The government had allotted 200 permits — 100 for Shillong region to be exclusively for women and another 100 for rural areas. The pink and white taxis were meant to ferry passengers within the city limits. After enough women did not come forward, the Regional Transport Authority (RTA) decided to hand over permits for the pink and white taxis to male drivers.
The government had launched the women-only taxis in view of complaints of harassment in local taxis and to address the general concern for the safety and security of women.

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