A critical component of women’s empowerment is physical control over her own mobility. There is an increasing number of working professional women who can occasionally afford and need cabs. With this, the availability of a secure cab service would go a long way in sustaining the empowerment of women in public spaces.
Immense value has been provided by the new enterprise – Sarathi – in helping women achieve a sense of security and assurance while travelling. In particular at night, and when they have to travel alone. The word Sarathi has Sanskrit origins, and means "one with a chariot, or charioteer". Lord Krishna was a charioteer for Arjuna, one of the Pandavas, in the story of Mahabharat.
For women who seek to be mobile, retain their independence, and pay the right fare, Sarathi (based in Durbar Marg) has come as a godsend. Its availability any time and anywhere, with an assurance of quality and safety, has prompted users to rave about it. While Tootle, the motorcycle cab service, is also gaining popularity, Sarathi is cornering a different niche of full comfort travel.
Conversations with a few of the drivers give an idea of the noble aim this has been started with. Sarathi drivers, who are paid a monthly salary, know they are being entrusted to get passengers from one point to another, safely, fairly, and without any show of arrogance or misconduct. The practice of giving the passengers a receipt and accepting the fare charge that comes up on the meter is a most welcome change and much needed respite from the growing indecency and disorderly conduct of the local cab drivers. The fare is charged from the point of pick up, irrespective of where the Sarathi cab had to drive from to get to the passenger pick up point. A few of the now regular Sarathi users admitted that they would be happy to "tip" the Sarathi driver, but are averse to doing so in case it has an adverse effect on those passengers who do not. Sarathi drivers would also prefer to be compensated for their additional driving time, and feel this is something the management needs to look into for the future.
As a Sarathi user myself, the service assurance, and adherence to a committed pick up time is commendable. For those familiar with the Nepali concept of time, which is in reality not having any sense of time, Sarathi offers a change. It provides services within the time it is requested for, with the exception of traffic jams.
The Sarathi webpage indicates that it started about 4 months ago, and is rapidly growing its fleet of cabs, and associated drivers . Starting with one car, there are now more than 40 cabs linked with it, which by March 2018 could become 100, with an aim to reach 200 plus. The entrepreneurs aim is to build up the business so that they garner at least 20% of the cab market in the next 2 years.
Sarathi services are available in Kathmandu 24/7, and while a one hour call time is necessary during peak hours (office times in the morning and evening) the service is reliable, safe, reasonable, and the drivers are well versed with the best way to get to their destination.
When asked if the drivers could wait while some shopping could be picked up, they agreed to do so, with the meter running of course. For women wanting to pick up their groceries en route to picking up their children, or returning home, or making a quick dash to pick up medical reports, the possibility of such a quick stop mode of transport that assures their safety is a tantalizing turn of events for those who have struggled with local cabs and their cab drivers. There of course are many local cab drivers who are cooperative, have a positive attitude and care about their passengers. Only, it is never certain if you will get one of these.
In fact, in recent years the changing attitude of local cab drivers has rapidly degenerated from rustic to rebellious, then vengeful, and has become a bane for women travellers. Night travel within Kathmandu, especially if outside of the Ring Road is fraught with risk with some drivers also suspected of using substances. With the safety index for walking alone dropping from 85 in the day to less than 50 at night, single women and more so working women in particular, would prefer to avoid late evening meetings, social events and other outings where they have to return home by themselves. Unless they know beforehand that the office vehicle is dropping them off, or have a network of family and friends who would drop them home or pick them up after the event, many of the women talked to shared their reluctance to venture alone in Kathmandu's post twilight zone.
Daytime hassles are no less frustrating. Cruising cabs are a rarity during office hours. Options narrow down to cabs parked at strategic roadside corners, whose drivers are increasingly infamous for over charging passengers unashamedly, unhesitatingly, and unforgivingly. Short distances cost more, maybe 150% more, with ad hoc bargaining conversation starters notably being, "How much will you pay?" Should you be a law abiding citizen and say, "Why, by the meter of course, just as the government has mandated" you may be promptly shunted off to the next driver in the queue with the first driver using a standard spiel. "I am actually waiting for a passenger, so sorry, I realize I cannot go. Take the next cab in line". In other words the first driver is expressing dissatisfaction with the fare you are willing to pay. If you had said, "How much do you want to be paid?" and agreed to being ripped off meekly, you would have been taken to your destination by the shortest route imaginable.
The second driver, who has probably overheard the entire conversation with the first driver starts his popular whine, "Hajur, how can you say we go by the meter? We have to return as well and need to be paid for it as we no longer have parking spaces available within the city, thanks to our government. So either we need to keep cruising for the next passenger or we drive around till we get a place to park. Road extensions have taken away the nooks and crannies where we used to park earlier. We have to recoup our cruising expenses from somewhere, and as the government does not, well guess what, it is you". There is a third, unabashed rip off that goes like this. "My meter does not work, so you will have to pay me this amount (citing a 100% fare hike) to this place. Others would overcharge, but I am honest and only ask for the going rate". While you as a woman are trying to come to terms with this brush off, you see a gentleman get in the same cab, with the cab driver now meekly agreeing to the meter rate, with a request of some additional tip.
A most disturbing conversation was overheard at the entrance of a Teaching Hospital where an old lady with a bandage on her eye was waiting with her daughter for a cab to return home. The young doctor who came to see them off was advising the patient to try and reach home as soon as possible to avoid dust specks from getting into his eye. A cab that had just dropped off passengers was flagged by the helpful doctor. Once both the old lady and daughter had got in the cab, closed the doors, and waved the doctor goodbye, the driver turned around and announced coolly, "I won't go by the meter. To go to Balaju at the address you said, give me Rs 600". Standing right next to the cab which had its windows open meant this conversation could be heard by all, including me also waiting for a cab. An elderly citizen at her most vulnerable as a patient is a feast for the cab driver. It is not only at Teaching Hospitals that women struggle to find cabs but at at Patan and at Bir Hospitals too. Being able to rely on a dependable service goes a long way in relieving women patients from the stress of having to come and go from check-ups.
New ventures often face financial challenges, and with Sarathi, it is possible there is a cash crunch when it comes to paying the cab drivers. When conversing with drivers doing 12 hour stints, they shared they are reportedly paid a salary of just over Rs 20,000 . A few drivers mentioned that while there is some earning security and for a change there is no stress of having to pay the cab owner Rs 1000 a day, or Rs 1500 if in the night shift, certain improvements could really help Sarathi secure its business aims and get drivers committed for beyond six months. These are: Accident Insurance, Accident Compensatory Pay, Health / Medical Insurance, Provident Fund, Higher Salary, Share in Profits, and Employment Transparency.
One of the drivers mentioned how as a single breadwinner of the family, any loss of income via an accident would be unthinkable. Given that they are paid a salary, it feels like a job. This was one of the attractions of being associated with Sarathi. Jobs in turn are often associated with a level of stability and security. Accident and Disability (when on the job) coverage would go a long way in increasing the drivers' motivation to work. Given the rising pollution of Kathmandu city, drivers said they end up battling cough and cold on a regular basis. Having an assurance of some reimbursement of their health expenses would go a long way in improving their morale at work.
With living wages estimated to be around Rs 30,000 for Kathmandu, the Sarathi drivers who are reportedly paid less than this amount may have a valid point when "wishing for more". Sarathi drivers also tended to compare their salary to that of the local cab drivers who earn anywhere between Rs 30,000 to Rs 50,000. While Sarathi drivers do not have to deal with the stress of daily earnings to fork over to the owner, they are still only human in hoping to be paid more than their competitors.
An interesting suggestion was put forth by one of the Sarathi drivers when asked what would motivate him to continue being associated with Sarathi if the salary amount could not be substantially increased. His immediate response was, "Improve the benefits, and include Provident Fund payments that would give us a better identity as being part of the workforce". Dignity of labor is what the drivers are hoping to get by being part of an exciting new venture.
Another young driver mentioned how he had been driving for Sarathi for two months, and has helped them earn thousands through passengers he has dropped off. "It would be so motivating to have us drivers get a share of the monthly profit, or be paid this on a quarterly basis. If we are to be a part of this new initiative, why not also try something new when it comes to getting the commitment from the drivers in a more lasting way? Pay us more to get us to perform more. After all, money pulls money – paisa le paisa taanchha."
A former driver who had worked in a private company before becoming a cab driver with Sarathi mentioned how he was hoping to receive a letter of hire citing all salary and benefits, vacation time and other work details. When asked if he had, he said, "Not really. It would be nice though, to get something official and stamped.”
The other day when I was using the Sarathi service to get home after yet another long day on the other side of town, the driver was mentioning how it took him 30 minutes to get to the pick-up point. "Wouldn't it be cost effective for Sarathi to have its own parking space in different parts of Patan, Kathmandu and Bhaktapur where women passengers could go and get into a cab easily?"
This set me thinking along this idea with some additions of my own. As a new venture, Sarathi has the advantage of being able to try out innovative schemes. One of these could be a membership fee among regular passengers. Another is getting institutions to sign up for services at an official level. There are several workplaces where women employees would prefer to car pool back home rather than risk having their bags picked in the overly crowded public transportation they have to endure on the return journey. A third could be getting the Ministry of Transportation to recognize Sarathi as a venture with social welfare / social responsibility components and provide tax rebates on annual tax payments, fuel coupons at prime petrol pumps, or other such recognition for the good work taken. Fourth could be one-off donations by women's professional groups to promote wider ownership.
How Sarathi tackles its challenges will be one part of another emerging story. A current concern is the growing relevance of such urban ventures having a direct impact on women's safety, security and a sense of empowerment that needs to be sustained. In a country where women are still struggling to get their basic rights upheld, a business initiative that promises dignity in travel is one that deserves to be promoted as a fixture in the urban landscape. One small step by Sarathi could indeed prove to be a giant leap for women-kind.
This article is based on perceptions of those who have used Sarathi and the informal conversations with Sarathi drivers, and is in no way an advertisement by anyone associated with Sarathi.