NORTH DELHI: Commercial drivers in Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon have to undergo a gender sensitisation class before getting their licences renewed, once every three years.

The intervention, named Baraabari ki Dagar, Surakshit Safar (The Road to Equality, a Safe Journey) was initiated in 2014 by the Transport Department of the Delhi government, the Transport Authority of Noida, the government of Haryana, the Gurgaon district administration, Indraprastha Gas Limited and the Manas Foundation.

The Citizen attended one such gender sensitisation class, held at the Driver Training Institute in Burari. 106 drivers of varying ages were in attendance, who owned commercial vehicles ranging from autos to school buses, vans, and e-rickshaws.

The class began with loud cheers, as the attendees had all been kept waiting. Training in stress relief through various hand exercises kicked off the exercise. The topic ‘Gender Sensitisation’ echoed in the voices of the trainees, who were ready for the discourse.

The trainer started the discussion by asking why a discussion of women’s safety was necessary for commercial drivers. This drew an immediate response from Arvinder Singh, a bus driver. “It is our responsibility to respect women. As far I know all the big organisations and the state respect women, so I think I should do the same.”

A couple more responses followed this, such as “We should respect women as we are surrounded by them in our day today life,” and “By being polite we can make the roads comfortable for them.”

The discourse went on to worry about the image of drivers ever since the Nirbhaya case in December 2012. The attendees agreed that the misbehaviour of one among their community ruins the image of all. They went on to show their understanding of the reasons behind drivers’ misbehaviour.

Amit Kumar, 30, an auto driver blatantly blamed the internet for being the reason behind cases of sexual harassment. “I am glad that porn sites have been banned in India. It was adding a lot to the crime rates.”

The image of the capital, considering its crime rate, was discussed by explaining the passenger-driver relation to the drivers present. They were told that they only suffer losses to increasing crime, as fewer tourists visit the city and people opt less for public transport. These were the reasons given to help them understand the depth of the matter.

They were also introduced to NCRB statistics of sexual violence, domestic violence, kidnapping and dowry murders, and were urged to consider it attentively.

Seeing the data Vijendra, 42, a taxi driver, rose to blame the mentality of the people behind such mishappenings. He added the point that “Drivers get drunk and misbehave a lot of the time. Addiction is bad in our profession.”

A comment on pehnaawa (attire) disrupts the silence of the room. Amrinder Singh, 60, who plies an auto rickshaw says “Ladkiyon ka pehnaawa sahi nahi hota hai” (Women don’t dress correctly).

To the new experience, a large voice denies it, but softly. Those supporting the point are few in number, but too charged to be calmed down and kept from their view against what women wear.

The discussion turns into personal whispers amongst themselves, which are disturbed by a question Arvind Kumar asks. “If dress is the reason, then why was Phoolan Devi raped by a group of 12 men? She wore a ghaghra chunni (long skirt and top).”

An exercise of identifying the responsibilities of men and women is given to the attendees. The image of a screw driver brings the answer, men, while that of a crying eye is recognised as that of a woman. A tubelight is thought of as the work of a man.

Here they are asked to understand the importance of allowing the girls and women around them to do such work. “The result will not be a fused bulb” – this garners an accepting response by their smile.

They are told about the laws relating to women’s safety, including a jail term for three months to seven years in cases of sexual harassment cases.

The session concludes with the drivers’ agreement towards changing the scenario for women.

Certificates are given to them after marking their attendance at the end of the session. Vishal Kumar, a bus driver, comes to the desk hurriedly asking for his certificate as he is getting late. “You have already wasted my time, now hurry up,” he says.

After the class, The Citizen asked some of the attendees what they thought of the workshop.

Manoj Das was attending this class for the second time. “So I was prepared. The session was good. But some of the people present are mentally disturbed. It appeared that they were taking out their frustration in the name of women, which is bad.”

For Charan Das, who runs a school bus in Dwarka, “We don’t get to hear these types of discussions, it was new for me and our community of drivers.” On some people’s response against women’s attire, he said “It’s their defunct mentality which makes them think so.”

Romit Sharma, 28, runs a school van and had his mother waiting outside while he attended the class. “I didn’t expect the session would be good. It did inform me about matters I wasn’t aware of.”

Does he allow girls to sit on the front seat? “I am open to these things. It’s up to them, if they want, they can sit.”

At this Amit Kumar, who had earlier appreciated the ban on porn sites in India, intervenes. “I don’t allow females on the front seat, as physical touch can arise emotions. It’s better to avoid it.”

On my way back to the metro, Surendra Negi, the auto driver who drops me, says he has to get his licence renewed next month. Does he know about the class? “I have attended it before. They tell us interesting things.”

The trainer Achyuta Nanda agrees that a one-hour session every three years is not sufficient, and more classes should be organised. “We make surprise visits to their home to see how much they have incorporated it in their personal lives. To our satisfaction, we have received good reviews from their wives.”

“It’s good to hear them,” Nanda adds, “they participate in the discussion and don’t shy away.”

On the drivers’ response, he says “If a driver says that girls shouldn’t come out at night, it doesn’t mean he has bad intentions. He might also say so, seeing the unsafe scenario prevailing in society. So, I don’t judge them based on their response. It’s about the circumstances.”

Besides the classes, the intervention encourages drivers to use slogans like Mera Imaan, Mahilaon ka Sammaan (My creed is respect for women) or This Taxi Respects Women or “Along with this AUTO/BUS/TAXI, I also drive a campaign to end violence against women” or “DTC’s journey towards Respect and Safety of Women” on their vehicles.

For Abhishek Singh, a student who commutes to college by auto, “Public transport has been used to advertise various political parties, but this is a new initiative to make people aware about gender equality.”

Manas Foundation, the non-profit organisation involved in running the intervention, focuses on why it’s “drivers” who need to be gender sensitised.

“Public transport has the potential to empower women by making employment opportunities, healthcare resources and education accessible to them. A fear of sexual harassment and violence in various modes of transport lead to these facilities being inequitable and inaccessible to women, affecting their ability to participate in the city equally.”

On the session being conducted by a male trainer, they clarify that “training centres in other parts of Delhi have female trainers.”