Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Needed: Women Drivers In India

In recent days the gruesome rape and murder of Jyoti Chaudhari in Pune has been in the news. Jyoti, a Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) worker, was traveling – alone with a driver – in a company-provided cab, going to her office for her late night shift, when the incident took place. It appears that the driver of the cab and an accomplice were the perpetrators of this heinous crime. For more about this incident see this, this, or this.

This horrific incident – apparently not the first such case – has sent shock waves through the BPO industry in India. A large proportion of the BPO workforce is female, and many employees are required to work in late night shifts. Transportation of workers to and from late night shifts is usually contracted out by the BPO company to a fleet of cabs. There appears to be a general perception among women BPO workers, as well as in the media and the police that this kind of travel arrangement raises serious safety issues. Consider this chilling advice given to female BPO workers: “if you are in one such cab, never drop your guard, Avoid distractions like music, keep emergency numbers on speed dial and keep pepper spray or at least a bunch of keys handy” (link). For more see this, this, or this.

It appears that BPO companies have long been aware of these safety issues and have introduced some rules to prevent untoward incidents – the main rule being that female workers are not to travel in a cab unless accompanied by a male colleague. Some companies also put security guards in these cabs. However, in the wake of the Jyoti Chaudhari incident, it is obvious that the current rules are not enough. A number of new ideas to improve security have been floated. These range from bolstering the presence of security guards in the cabs, to increased night patrolling by the police, to improved databases for conducting effective background checks for driver, to installing Global Positioning Systems (GPS) in cabs to track their movements (see this, this, and this). While some of these suggestions are certainly reasonable, most of them will entail large financial outlays and are still not likely to be foolproof.

I propose a radical and elegant solution for this problem – a solution that is likely to be cost-effective as well: hire women drivers to drive the cabs that transport BPO workers. Think about it: the main security concern in a late-night BPO cab is the driver. If the driver is a woman then the fear of sexual assault is automatically eliminated. A security guard will not be needed in a woman-driven cab. Nor will there be any need to juggle pick-up and drop-off routes so as to avoid having unaccompanied female BPO workers in a cab. The possibility of drivers being drunk during their nighttime duty hours is also likely to be greatly reduced if BPO companies hire women drivers. Not only will this approach insulate women BPO workers from the possibility of sexual assault, it is also likely to have the very substantial side-benefit of providing new income opportunities for women from relatively poor socio-economic backgrounds. Of course, BPO companies may have to make some initial investments to train women drivers, but it should pay off financially in the long run.

BPO companies could be just a starting point for professional women drivers in India. I think there is great potential for women working as drivers/chauffeurs. As is well known, many car-owners in India employ drivers/chauffers. Why should women not be considered for this occupation? Many Indian women from poor socio-economic backgrounds work as housemaids, house-cleaners, cooks, child-care providers, etc. Their salary is generally rather low. If these women can learn the additional skill of driving a car, and if – a big if – the upper-middle-class families that employ them accept the notion of women drivers, then the income potential for these women is likely go up substantially. Driving the family car could also fit in very nicely with such women’s work schedules. For example, a housemaid could, in addition to her house cleaning duties, easily take on the additional duty of driving her employer’s kids to school, thereby substantially increasing her income potential, and providing a valuable service to her employer.

Some will say that women from poor socio-economic backgrounds will never be able to learn how to drive. However, the men who work as drivers usually come from very similar socio-economic backgrounds. In terms of education, etc., there is generally not a huge difference between male drivers and female housemaids (in terms of salary, however, a male driver generally earns substantially more than a female housemaid). I am sure female drivers in India will be just as capable as male drivers – if only prejudices and mindsets can be overcome.