Women e-rickshaw drivers hit by pandemic, but decide to fight back
No rides, no income and no money to repay the loans they took. But the band of intrepid women who took the decision to steer the course of their lives by driving e-rickshaws and also owning them aren’t giving up.
It will take more than a pandemic to get them back into the confines of their homes, say the women who decided to defy convention when they stepped out of the door and got behind the wheel of their e-rickshaws.
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Organisations such as Humsafar and SMV Green Solutions which helped train scores of women and facilitated their loans said none of their ‘drivers’ have reached out to them to sell their vehicles.
"I am ready to do all kinds of odd jobs temporarily to make money, but there is no way I am selling my rickshaw," said Sima Khan, a doughty Lucknow-based woman who went from being homemaker to entrepreneur.
She is among the scores of women across the country who bought e-rickshaws through support centres in their city by somehow managing the money for down payments and have been earning a living and also paying their EMIs.
Until now that is.
After a few years of driving an e-rickshaw on rent, the 30-year-old said she decided to invest in a three-wheeler of her own about eight months ago to avoid the interference of a middle man and ensure that her earnings were her own.
Until the lockdown, which came into effect on March 25 to curtail the spread of Covid-19, her income was steady enough for her to run the household smoothly and also repay the loan for her rickshaw.
An e-rickshaw costs about ₹1,45,000. The loans are sanctioned by banks at an interest rate of 14 per cent per annum, making the total amount to be repaid equivalent to approximately ₹1,86,000.
Like many other women drivers, Khan had been paying ₹2,849 every 14 days, making the monthly instalment as high as ₹5,698. This was doable in the days before the Covid-19 pandemic but the last six months changed everything.
“It has been harrowing," Khan told PTI.
In these last few months, she has mortgaged her jewellery, borrowed money from informal lenders and is now trying to pay them back. When the payments get delayed, the bank threatens to confiscate her e-rickshaw.
“There was zero income during the lockdown. Even after that, we have been getting hardly any passengers. I earn less than half of what I did before the lockdown. I have been trying my best to repay the loan, but if and when it gets delayed, they call and say, ‘paise nahi doge toh rickshaw utha lenge’," she said.
Given that the end of the pandemic is nowhere near and the challenges are likely to continue, selling the rickshaw might seem like the easier thing to do.
But that is not an option, said Khan, determined to continue on the path of empowerment and self-sufficiency.
She decided to become an e-rickshaw driver after seeing a few women in her neighbourhood. The decision to drive one, and then own it too, was not easy. She faced resistance from her in-laws. But Khan did not budge, and took driving lessons at Humsafar, a support centre for women in the city.
“I realised that no work was good or bad, and when I saw some women driving e-rickshaws in the area, I wanted to be like them. So, I approached one of them, who told me about Humsafar," Khan, who drives a rickshaw in Lucknow’s Alambagh area, said.
It wasn’t until recently that women like Khan got their first taste of independence after decades of unquestioningly conforming to the societal roles -- they cooked, they cleaned, and took care of children.
The rules went for a toss a few years back when the handful of women decided to drive change with their e-rickshaws. The lockdown has been a major setback but ask these women drivers to give up and they say it will take something a lot bigger than a pandemic to force them back to their old lives.
In fact, almost all the 55 e-rickshaw drivers who trained at Humsafar since the first batch in 2015 have found themselves in dire circumstances in the last few months. But giving up on their rickshaws is not something they want to even consider.
“In the last five-six months, we have received calls from so many of our women drivers about how they were struggling to make ends meet. We provided dry ration in many of these households.
“They have been calling us to check if there were any other jobs they could take up temporarily, but not one woman has even mentioned giving up on driving, or selling their rickshaws," Richa Rastogi of Humsafar told PTI.
Similar stories of perseverance can be found on the streets of Allahabad where 58 women over the last three years have discovered a sense of identity after a start-up, SMV Green Solutions, launched its Vahini Project in 2017 allowing women to drive, as well as own e-rickshaws.
One of those who benefited from the scheme was 48-year-old Sushila Devi. With a perpetually drunk husband, she was the one left to spearhead decisions in her family. Driving an e-rickshaw, she said, gave her a new found sense of freedom of mobility.
Sushila Devi, who drives the rickshaw for nearly 12 hours (6 am -6 pm) in Allahabad’s north Malakka area, was an egg vendor until two years ago. Someone suggested the e-rickshaw idea and she snapped at it.
She trained at SMV Green Solutions and bought a vehicle right before Diwali in 2018.
She took a loan for ₹1,45,000 at a 15 per cent reducing interest rate, translating into instalment payments of ₹3,000 every 14 days. However, the last six months have been particularly difficult, and she hasn't been able to pay the EMIs on multiple occasions.
"I would earn ₹1,500 a day before Covid-19, but now I barely manage to make ₹400. Every time I miss a payment, I have been told I will have to pay more later (due to the accrued interest according to RBI moratorium guidelines).
"Which is why I have also been helping vegetable vendors move their stock in the market, but that is still not enough," she said, echoing Khan in saying that selling her three-wheeler is not on the cards.
In March this year, RBI announced a moratorium on payment of instalments on term loans till August 31.
While the measure to support the sagging economy in the face of Covid-19 allowed deferral of the payments, the interest continued to accrue during this period, resulting in an overall increase in the total amount to be paid.
“The (accrued interest) amount can be as high as 10 per cent of the total loan yet to be repaid. The waiving can reduce the burden significantly as there was no income during the lockdown and still the earning is around 50-60 per cent less than what it used to be in pre-corona scenario," said Naveen Krishna, founder of SMV Green Solutions.
No woman driver has approached him yet to sell her vehicle.
“All Vahinis are first-time borrowers and owners of assets. The sense of ownership dwells confidence amongst women e-rickshaw drivers coupled with the financial freedom that they get," he said.
The start-up has also been facilitating e-rickshaw ownership among women drivers in cities like Delhi, Lucknow and Varanasi.