Riders can't help but notice Vankadarath Saritha.
On an oppressively hot August afternoon, a crowd waits to board their bus at the Andrews Ganj stop in Delhi, located on one of the busiest intersections of the capital.
As the cherry-colored bus number 543 pulls up, riders hurriedly squeeze down the aisle. But a few notice the driver and do a double take. Vankadarath Saritha is used to this. She’s invariably polite with the passengers who chat with her, struck by curiosity. “Is it tough to do what you do?” they often ask.
The 31-year-old is the lone woman bus driver in Delhi. She was recruited last year by the Delhi Transport Corporation, the state-owned public transport operator. Delhi is known for its fearsome and treacherous streets. The harassment of women is a pernicious malady in the fourth most dangerous city in the world for women on public transport (behind Bogota, Mexico City, and Lima, according to a Thompson Reuters Foundation survey). In 2012, a young woman was brutally gang raped in a privately operated bus. The incident led to nationwide protests and became an inflection point on the topic of women’s safety in India. One proposal to make Delhi safer and more equitable involved having more women work in public transit.
A few incremental changes have been made. Now, it’s possible to hire a cab in Delhi driven by a woman. It is also possible to board a bus and find a woman as bus conductor. DTC has 245 women conductors and runs women-only “Ladies Special” services on 26 routes. The Delhi Metro, the city’s rail service, has women drivers and station controllers. “We’ve found if there are more women in public transport, the system slowly starts to respond and adapt,” says Shrinivas Rao of Azad Foundation, an NGO that runs a female-only cab service in the city.
But cultural shifts take time. Driving a bus on Delhi’s mean streets is seen as a man’s job—DTC employs more than 11,000 male drivers for its fleet of nearly 5,000 buses. When it put out advertisements for the women recruitment drive, seven came forward. Saritha was the only one to qualify.
For more than a year now, she’s been driving a bus that covers a route of more than 75 miles a day. She starts her day at 6 a.m. and winds up by the afternoon. Her record has been so stellar (she’s noted for her punctuality, good behavior, and accident-free record in this accident-prone city) that it has inspired the authorities to renew the campaign.
But many doubt that more women will turn out this year. “I doubt many women will come for the job this year as well,” says Amit Kumar, the conductor on Bus 543. “How many women can handle this? Look at the traffic and how abusive the public is in Delhi. I admire her for what she does.”
Gajanand Raj, the driver who takes over the bus after her shift, echoes the sentiment. “Women run away in fear from this job,” he says with a slight smirk. It is enough to get Saritha roiled. “Come here,” she says to him authoritatively. “What do you mean by that? Most of the women were disqualified last year because they could not meet the height criterion. They weren’t scared and they didn’t run away,” she says. Saritha underplays her job constantly, despite receiving a huge amount of media attention since she started. “Everything is tough until you don’t do it. Why is this not a woman’s job? I say it is. We are equal to anything,” she says.
She comes from Telengana, a state in the south of India reeling under an agrarian crisis. The youngest of five sisters, she shouldered the economic burden of the family when her father fell ill. She started by breaking stereotypes at a young age, driving an auto rickshaw in her village as a 16-year-old before moving to the city of Hyderabad. She eventually made her way to Delhi, where she drove a taxi for a few years. Saritha has mastered the art of navigating Dehli. She speaks the lingo and can maneuver her way through its tricky dealings.
One of the rules of survival she’s learned on the job is to blend in. She was constantly harassed by male passengers as a teenage rickshaw driver. So she cut her hair short, removed the traditional nose ring worn by women in her community, and started dressing in pants and shirts.
“When I was really young, my father liked to dress me as a boy, as he had really wished for a son. Now, I am in a job where I have to always look like that. People sometimes call me bhaiya (Hindi term for elder brother),” she says, smiling, as we sit in a public park outside the bus depot. When we finish our conversation, she straps on her helmet and rides away on her bike. At home, she has a pile of washing to do. She’ll then make her daily phone call to family back home, cook a meal for herself, watch television, and go to bed early before starting all over again the next morning. It’s an unvarying schedule, but she’s content with it.
The following day, Urmila Pant—a retired teacher visiting relatives—is the last passenger on Bus 543. It’s her first time on board. She notices Saritha and says approvingly, “She drives with such confidence!” When Pant gets off at her stop, she says to an elderly man nearby, “Look, a woman is driving that bus!” He cocks his eyebrows and asks, “Really?” with a wide smile.