It was an idea whose time had come a long time ago. Governments had, in fact, proposed, only to dispose of it later, and while other cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Pune successfully launched all-women cab services, Bangalore merely watched from the sidelines. It finally took three friends to take the plunge last month and launch Angel City Cabs, Bangalore's first fleet of taxis driven by women.
Lawyer Surya Mukundaraj, one of the founders, says they had wanted to do something for society and when the three started looking around for ideas, they realised that women seemed to be employed in every field, except as taxi drivers. "We even have women bus conductors in the city, but not cab drivers. So we decided to be the first to start a taxi service for women with women drivers," says Mukundaraj.
The motivation, says co-founder Manjunath Adda, a social activist and writer, was to provide a safe service for women as well as empower them by training drivers from economically weaker sections, and providing them employment. "Also, driving is conventionally considered a male bastion and the few women who do drive invariably belong to the upper middle-class and wealthy sections of society. We wanted to change that." The third partner, Vinay Chaitanya, is a real estate developer.
The trio put up banners in Nagarbhavi, a Bangalore suburb where the company has its office, and began with 10 women who responded, mostly from in and around the neighbourhood. The women were put through a two-month training programme, beginning with a 21-day session at the driving school run by Maruti. "And after that, Kalyani Motors was gracious enough to continue the training for another month in our vehicles," says Mukundaraj.
But it was not just about learning to drive. Since the women were from economically weaker sections, it also meant more often than not, that the only areas they were familiar with were their immediate neighbourhoods. "So I gave them my personal car and told them to drive around the city, and familiarise themselves with all localities. The passengers have mostly been understanding, when the girls don't know the route, but some haven't," he says.
The service was launched last month with a fleet of four cars. Unfortunately, if finding the 10 drivers to train was tough, retaining them proved to be even tougher. When I visit the office in Nagarbhavi, Kavya S, the manager, explains that of the initial 10, only four remain, the others having quit for various reasons. "Some just took the free training and left. Now we are wondering if we should introduce a bond stating they will remain with the company for at least a year," says the 26-year-old former lecturer. The company plans to begin training a new batch later this month, and is hopeful of having 10-12 drivers again, which is when it will launch "officially".
"Currently, we get up to four bookings a day," she says. Mukundaraj adds that demand is not a problem, and they had received enquiries from companies and hotels as well, but with the number of drivers being inadequate, they were unable to take up every booking.
For the drivers, too, this was a unique opportunity. Twenty-year-old Chitra V admits she was initially very nervous but is now confident. "One of of my customers even told me 'good driving,'" she says with a shy smile, in Kannada. "With this job, I earn well and am also seen to have a good status." Chitra's father is also a driver, and she says her family was very supportive.
G Uma, who's 23, says she signed up for the job because she felt she wanted to achieving something in life. "And this job allows me to do that." Uma's parents do not work, and she and her two sisters are the breadwinners of the family.
Both the girls say they too initially thought that driving was a man's job, and so did their manager, Kavya. "When Surya, my cousin, initially told me about the venture, I was aghast and I had my doubts about whether it could be successful. But when I came here and saw the girls, I felt so very proud!" says Kavya.
Though the service is intended for women, they can have their families accompanying them, unlike other only-women taxi services. And to ensure the drivers are safe, each car has been installed with a panic button and a microphone, which if pressed immediately alerts the owners through SMS and email. The taxis are also tracked real-time through an app.
The owners are now awaiting for the next batch of drivers to be trained, before beginning an aggressive marketing campaign, and expanding the fleet. The company currently runs on a no-profit, no-loss basis but going by the initial demand, Mukundaraj is confident it will not be long before it becomes profitable. "We have already shaken up the taxi industry in Bangalore," he says with a broad grin.
If you're in Bangalore and want to book an Angel City Cab, call 81838 95600/01