“I shiver at the thought of doing a 12-hour shift during pregnancy”
They say happiness is not in the destination but the journey. However, if the road is bumpy, the temperatures are soaring and the bus one is travelling by is in dire need of maintenance, then the entire experience can be quite trying. Now imagine if one has to traverse the same rough route every day, twice a day. Life then can truly become very tough - and tougher still, if one is a female bus conductor.
These days, if you happen to travel by a state roadways bus in Rajasthan, chances are that a woman will come up to you and say: ‘Aako kahan jaana hai (Where do you want to go)?’
The smartly dressed women bus conductors are fulfilling their responsibilities effortlessly. (Photo: Abha SharmaWFS)
Recently, when a soft-spoken voice courteously asked me this question as I was settling into my seat on a Jaipur-bound bus, I mistook the person to be a co-passenger looking for a place to sit.
However, as I looked up, I was face-to-face with a young girl, clad in a salwar-kameez and jacket, head covered with a scarf, a blue coloured whistle hanging from her neck and a ticketing machine in her hand. Manju Prajapati turned out to be one of the 14 young female recruits from Nagaur depot who have joined Rajasthan Roadways in March 2014.
For the first time this year, the Rajasthan State Roadways Corporation opened up the job of the bus conductor to women in a bid to provide 30 per cent reservation to them.
Since February 2014, women have been posted across all the eight roadways zones - Jodhpur, Jaipur, Bharatpur, Ajmer, Sikar, Bikaner, Udaipur and Kota.
By the time the bus I was travelling in rolled into the terminal building at Jaipur, it was two in the afternoon and the temperature outside was touching 46 degree Celsius.
I caught up with Manju and her colleague, Vimla Manda, as they were preparing to eat lunch in the empty bus. I had expected them to head to a common room to rest before their next trip, but before they could answer my query, their colleagues, driver, Bhanwar Singh and Shravan, who were also having lunch in the bus, said, “Earlier, there was a room fitted with facilities like washrooms, fan and a TV, but it has been broken down to make way for new construction.” Under a proposed plan, the Jaipur Central Bus Stand will be rebuilt and renovated to world-class standards.
Therefore, once passengers get off the staff unpacks their tiffin boxes on one of the vacated seats. “It is almost a 12-hour duty for us,” informed Manju, who got into the service after finishing her first-year college exams and will have to successfully go through a probation period of two years before getting confirmed.
“From the boarding point it takes five-and-a-half hours to reach Jaipur. After an hour’s break we are on the road again. It has been quite an exhausting run this summer. The absence of basic facilities like washrooms at most bus terminals, particularly in the smaller towns, makes life really problematic for us,” she shared. Even in Jaipur, the state capital, these women use the Sulabh Complex meant for the general public by paying a charge of Rs 2.
Clearly, while the move to recruit women conductors may have helped to break stereotypes there is still a long way to go in terms of providing them with on-the-job facilities. In fact, a number of female conductors I spoke to were unsure of their future in the profession because of the challenges involved.
“We always run the risk of catching UTI (urinary tract infection) and feel miserable when we have to report on duty during periods,” said Manju. The government offices have a five-day working week but in roadways, the female conductors get four weekly offs in a month and three days break during periods. They are required to report on duty if no locum is available.
The difficulties are even greater for those married. Firstly, persuading in-laws to give permission for a job that involves travelling to different places is an uphill task. And, even if they come around, many are apprehensive about their fate once they become pregnant.
Said Vimla, “I shiver at the thought of doing a 12-hour shift during pregnancy. How I wish the female conductors could be given office posting for a year or so in addition to the due maternity leave during that time.”
What’s the greatest challenge they have faced on duty till date? Said a female conductor from the Sikar zone, “Blowing the whistle! In the feudal set-up of Rajasthan, imagine a woman blowing the whistle to start and stop the bus in the presence of village elders. It will take time for people to get adjusted to our new role.”
Despite all the difficulties, according to Kamal Kishore Pareek, Jaipur zonal manager, women conductors on all the routes have been discharging their duties well.
“Right from alerting passengers to be seated during journey to ticket-making and even helping travellers get off at their designated destinations, they have fulfilled their responsibilities properly,” he said.
Incidentally, a majority of the new female recruits belong to the Other Backward Class (OBC) category, followed by those from the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. The number of general candidates is few. Moreover, most of the selected women are graduates and many of them even have a Master’s degree.
What motivated them opt for the job that pays a fixed monthly salary of little less than Rs 8,000 during probation? “Unemployment and financial problems in the family,” said Manju, adding, “When husbands are jobless, wives have no option but to take up whatever they get, even at the cost of a hard life.”
Though the postings are made in the home district it is not always possible to get the rotation of their preference or a posting at the depot nearest from home.
The deluxe and Volvo bus routes have limited stops and the women can expect to get decent washroom facilities at the mid way halts. But not all can get those postings. “It is done on merit basis,” says Mamta, who is posted on the Jaipur-Delhi Volvo bus.
For these dynamic working women the road ahead is long and fraught with difficulties. But they are optimistic that things will become better as time passes. - Women's Feature Service