MEENU VADERA BELIEVES THAT WOMEN have as much right as men to earn decent money driving vehicles on the teeming streets of urban India. And the small social enterprise she created in New Delhi — Sakha Consulting Wings Private — has been blazing a trail, training women from slum families to become professional taxi drivers and chauffeurs, historically a male role.
The young women Vadera seeks to propel toward more rewarding lives typically come from the most marginalized parts of society. Without some special break, they’re typically headed toward a lifetime of bottom-rung household duties or menial factory work.
Vadera, a graduate of the London School of Economics with two decades of experience as a grassroots trainer and leader, sees better opportunities for them. And the time, she says, is ripe as India’s economy grows rapidly: “Our aim is not just to provide technical skills, but mainstream livelihood opportunities.”
The women who drive cabs for Sakha typically come from marginalized parts of society. (Sakha Consulting Wings Private photo)
So with support from the Azad Foundation, Sakha’s nonprofit sister organization, Vadera has been able to initiate professional training that’s led almost 300 women to a permanent driving license — in many cases the first formal documentation, and legal recognition of their citizenship in their lives.
The curriculum ranges broadly. It doesn’t just cover the basics of handling a vehicle but also English conversation and communication skills, personal grooming, classes in gender and legal rights, and map reading for Delhi’s congested roadways.
The trainees were also given martial arts training for self-defense (classes were taught by the Delhi Police’s “Crime Against Women Cell”). But the physical safety issue is not as big as one might imagine — overall, Vadera explains, violence against women most often occurs not on the roadways but in their own neighborhoods.
For the graduates, there are three immediate possibilities. One is to be a driver with Sakha Cabs for Women, an on-call, 24-hour cab service driven by women, for women and their families, in Delhi. Second there’s Sakha Chauffeur on Call — chauffeur services for a short trip or daily packages, with advance bookings (such as a doctor or airport trip) available. And finally Sakha Chauffeur Placement Services, which arranges full-time driving commissions for families on an agreed contract with the driver.
The taxi company is run by women — for women. (Sakha Consulting Wings Private photo)
Clients for the services are mostly women and children, most of them known and repeat customers, who make contact through Sakha’s centralized 24-hour call center. Some corporations and local World Bank offices have also taken advantage.
The size of the operation isn’t yet large: It began with one car and is now up to 13. Vadera says she thought vehicle purchase would be a big fiscal hurdle, but donated vehicles have helped and funds are currently on hand to purchase five more. Her goal: 50 to 60 cars and expansion to more Indian cities.
And why the expansion? She replies: “To show it’s possible for urban poor women to have real livelihood and dignity, as well as developing safe transit options for other women.”
And, she notes, Sakha means “a friend” in Hindu.
This story is part of a series of Citiscope profiles on urban innovators from Montréal to New Delhi who are improving lives, designs and fortunes in their cities. All are speaking at the New Cities Foundation’s 2014 New Cities Summit in Dallas from June 17-19, attended by urban leaders from around the world. Read the profiles here. And see Meenu’s presentation in the video below.