Women in Dantewada take up on themselves to solve transport woes, drive e-rickshaws to tackle bad infrastructure
To attend to this lacuna, a few of the village girls in Dantewada have taken up matters in their own hands.
When Chameli's father suffered a stroke two years ago, in a nondescript village close to the administrative headquarters in Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh, her brothers had to take turns to carry him in their arms to the nearest hospital around 6 km away. Chameli was 15 years old at the time but clearly remembers the ordeal of everyone involved, and fervently wished she could do something to alleviate their torment.
All these years, Shiuli had to carry the vegetables from her farm and back on her head to sell them at the local haat (market) every Friday. On the way around the district, as probably in the interiors of several central Indian states, it’s commonplace to find women balancing firewood and necessary stuff bundled above their heads, walking for miles to reach their homes or their relatives', even at this age and time. "We are used to walking these long distances in the scorching heat," says one of them. Although highways are getting built across the state, the way from one village to another is still typically marked by muddy foot-trodden ones. "Painful it is, but what are the options?" shrugs another.
Dusty grey villages scatter amidst patches of greenery in rural Dantewada. There is practically no means of transportation across or from the villages except for an occasional two-wheeler or a bicycle. A handful of three-wheelers ply near the government offices, around the Dantewada central administrative area, but they are not available for use by the villagers at their times of dire need.
To attend to this lacuna, a few of the village girls have taken up matters in their own hands. They have invested their money to buy electric vehicles, which they drive around to transport people and commodities. They found a friend in a very proactive district administration that has arranged for their training, driving licenses, and helped them procure the vehicles at a largely subsidised cost. This initiative, however, doesn’t match the fancy attempt to inject women drivers in several of our cities, some of which has failed miserably. The young women of Dantewada, timid and shy, who wouldn’t so much as raise their voices to spell out their names to city-bred strangers, have resolved to make a change to their conditions.
It all started with the district administration worrying on employing the women while plugging several developmental gaps in the region. “We have seen that if the women in the family are sustainably employed, they spend a higher proportion of their earnings on education and healthcare, which leads to a holistic development of the region. Further, they tend to be more responsible and accountable towards their tasks,” says District Collector, Saurabh Kumar, the mastermind behind various developmental programs in the region. “We don’t trust those achar and papad programs anymore; we wanted to address areas that led to progress in the community while keeping the women motivated to continue the initiative.” This philosophy, added with the women’s need for conveyance, led to the introduction of a thorough one-month residential program on every aspect of driving e-rickshaws in the Livelihood College of Dantewada, in September 2017. Classes ran between 10.30 am and 5.30 pm, six days a week, and taught driving techniques, traffic rules, maintenance of the machines, addressing small issues, and more.
“The first batch had 30 students, and so far, we have trained over 144 women, out of which 56 have bought the vehicle and barring only a handful, rest are actively using their vehicles and their trainings,” said a contended Kritesh Hirwani, the principal of Livelihood College. He informed that the college has a unit that closely monitors the drivers, inquiring on a daily basis on their issues and troubles, and registering their success stories.
21-year-old Surmayi Bhaskar from Bastar got married and came to Dantewada in July 2017. In September, she joined the driving course. Phulmathi Bhaskar, 22, lives in Teknar village in Dantewada, and took the training in October. Both are now proud owners of their e-rickshaws that they drive around on a daily basis, and also work as trainers at the Livelihood College that gets them a modest salary of Rs 10,000 a month. “On a busy day, especially on a bazaar day, we earn as much as Rs 1,200,” they chorused. They have paid back 50 percent of their loans.
While most government-supported women’s self-help groups get freebies to support their development projects, the e-rickshaws were not distributed free of cost. The women had to buy them, albeit at a heavily subsidised price. “Each vehicle costs Rs 1,60,000 and the women pay around 20% of the money, in five to six instalments,” says Hirwani. Surmayi told us later, "We couldn't afford to not show up after acquiring the vehicle. We have invested our hard earned money in this program; we have to be accountable."
Lachhmi Nath, 20, from Puran Tarai village in Dantewada, had finished her Class XII and was pursuing a computer course from the Livelihood College when the driving course started. She wanted to do the hands-on training but her mother strictly prohibited her. “I started doing the course in October anyway and hid it from her. She had great reservations about her educated daughter turning driver. But now she’s pleased. She can conveniently go anywhere in my vehicle, and financially, our situation has improved,” says Lachhmi. She has already paid back her loan of Rs 32,000 four months back and is proud to transfer, among other regulars, Chameli to her school and Shiuli to the bazaar every Friday. She’s also available with her e-rickshaw at odd hours if someone needs to visit the doctor or a faraway relative.
The present models of e-rickshaws need eight to ten hours of charging, which is a hassle. Charging stations are available in some of the drivers’ houses and also at the Livelihood College premises. “New roads are getting built and we need more drivers,” says Hirwani. While news batches of students are registering every month, the district authority is planning to get an upgrade to Lithium batteries for the new versions of e-rickshaws. “That will double the cost of the vehicles. We are trying to figure out the financials – maybe the government will cover 70 percent of the cost and a part might be supported by the self-help groups so that future buyers have the costs within their affordable limits,” he contemplates.
This doesn’t seem to worry the girls. They have got the steering in their hands and have found new roads towards a dream future. Now that a part of their life and livelihood is fixed, they are ready to explore further.
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