Preetam Jha, a housewife from Patna, avoided travelling alone in the city except in the case of an emergency. The reason: Not only is the state capital of Bihar notorious for being unsafe for women, there wasn’t any proper women-friendly mode of transportation either. “We depended on the male members of the household to ferry us around on their bikes or we travelled in those rickety old autorickshaws that ply on fixed routes only. Commuting on regular government-run buses was not even an option because of the crowds,” says this wife of a schoolteacher.
But Jha has changed her stance on public buses now, thanks to a new bus service in town exclusively for women and they come with women conductors on board. It’s an initiative of the state government under which a private bus operator in Patna has been given permission to run the all-women service on fixed routes. This model has been adopted from a private transport company in Kolkata, the capital of the neighbouring state of West Bengal, which was the first to launch such a service in order to encourage more women to come out of their homes and travel by themselves.
The Bihar government has outsourced the running of these buses – which are easily identifiable on the roads because they have been painted a bright pink -to Eden Transport Private Limited. So far the response from women and girls has been encouraging. Fifteen-year-old Sulakshana, who has to commute to school daily from Gai Ghat in Patna city, says, “Travelling alone for girls in Bihar has always been a matter of concern for parents and other family members but this service has made things better. And with women conductors around, one feels really comfortable.”
Women conductors apart, another unique aspect of this 32-seater bus service – that has amble space for commuters to stand comfortably as well – is that it allows men to hop on, too – but only if they are being escorted by a woman passenger. The provision has been made because women and girls in the state are generally escorted by a male relative, especially while commuting. This is perhaps because the crime rate in Bihar is high. Although, according to recent data from the National Crime Records Bureau, there has been a 20 per cent decline in women-related crimes, the perception continues.
Explains Sachidanand Jha of the Eden Bus service, “Allowing men to board has actually increased the number of women commuters. Initially there were almost no passengers on these buses and just five or six women used to get on. That is now changing.” Although the running costs of the service are not being recovered right now, this should change with time.
The greatest boost to the ridership on these buses has been the presence of women conductors. And the benefits are mutual. Not only are they a great hit with their passengers, the job has also given many women financial stability and respect.
Anita Kumari, 26, loves being a conductor on the Gandhi Maidan to Danapur route. Only a matriculate, her prospects in the job market were not too bright – at best, she feels, she could have only hoped to continue doing the menial job of running errands for a small pharmaceutical company. Then came a newspaper advertisement which led her to “this great job opportunity”. “It has increased my social status in my neighbourhood. Isn’t it great that I don’t just manage passengers in the bus but also take care of the accounts! It is also wonderful to interact with so many people every day,” says Anita.
The story of Moni Parveen, 21, is similar. After finishing Class Ten, which, incidentally is the minimum educational qualification for the job of a bus conductor, she draws a monthly salary of Rs 8,000 (US$1=Rs 48.9) today with a commission of four per cent on each ticket. “It is a great source of support for me. I can take care of my family now. My parents are very proud of me and encourage me a lot,” she says with great confidence.
What about the passengers; are they happy with these spirited women around? Says Priya Bhushan, 26, a conductor on one of the pink buses, “The women who travel with us look out for the women conductors. They say they are much happier dealing with us.”
For now, there are seven such buses plying in six different routes in various localities of Patna. The service runs on a public private partnership (PPP) basis with the Bihar State Road Transport Corporation (BSRTC). Each bus has two women conductors and except for the driver most of the interaction is just between women. Of course, there are plans to introduce women drivers as well. According to Kunal Sharma, General Manager, Eden Transport Private Limited, “Although for now all the drivers are men, we want to encourage women to drive these all-women buses as well.”
There are other advantages too. Uday Singh Kumawat, Secretary, BSRTC, explains, “The new fleet has reduced the cost of transportation within the city and have empowered women to a great extent. With fares lower than those charged by the autorickshaw drivers, women are now taking to this bus services even though their numbers are still low at present.”
Adds Soni Siddiqui, a conductor, “Earlier, in the regular buses, seats had to be reserved for women and men had to be coaxed to get up. But all that has changed with these new pink buses. They are not too crowded either.”
These are early days for the pink bus service. Although women are still wary of using public transport, that should change once word gets round that commuting for women has just got cheaper and better. As young Bhushan, who is currently on the Gandhi Maidan to Digha route, puts it, “With us in command, I know women will definitely start availing of the facility in larger numbers.”
What’s required now, according to her, are more buses on different routes, especially those catering to college students and office goers.