If you’re a woman in India, getting from A to B is a series of negotiations. Leaving the house for a trip to the market? First there’s figuring out how to get there. A taxi? No guarantee of a metered fare, and the driver might flat out refuse, depending on where you’re going. The metro? Faster than the bus, but there’s the long walk to the station, and sidewalks are a luxury in much of urban India. Then there’s harassment, an experience so widespread in public areas that over 80% of women in Indian cities say they have faced it.
When rideshare companies like Uber and Ola entered India in the early 2010s, these logistical negotiations changed. In the years since, rideshare apps have become a lifeline for women in urban areas, an alternative to risks they faced on public transport or in taxis. That’s not to say rideshares remove the risk altogether: in 2014, a 26-year-old Delhi woman was kidnapped and raped by her Uber driver, a case that led to a lawsuit against Uber for how they handled the victim’s medical records. The app was banned in Delhi for over a year but has since grown to dominate the market along with its local competitor Ola; combined, the two companies hold 80% of the Indian taxi market.
The ubiquity of rideshare cabs has had a lasting impact on the urban-dwelling women of India, with ripple effects reaching stay-at-home moms, workers, and college students. Rest of World spoke to six women who live in Kolkata, a city of 14 million, about how rideshares have changed the way they navigate their city.
Menka Danda, 36
The beautician who needs her husband to book her rides
As a beautician, my work takes me to all corners of Kolkata; I work through an app called Urban Company to provide at-home spa services. Often, it’ll be a new client whose house I’ve never been to.
Before Uber came along, I used to take the buses. They’re always so crowded. My supply bags are huge and heavy; I carry all of my equipment in them and have to lug them around from client to client. On the bus or metro, sometimes there are no seats. Carrying the bags gets so tiring; by the time I’d reach my clients, I’d be exhausted. And in the summers, the heat is unbearable. If I have more clients in a day, I’ll always take Uber. If I take the bus, it takes so long, I can only visit one to two clients. On Uber, I can do four in one day.
The beauty service company trained me to use their app, but I’ve only studied till the sixth grade. Everything on the beauty app is in English, so I have difficulty reading the addresses for the clients I’m supposed to visit. Uber is the same way. I don’t know how to use the app on my own. My husband tags along with me on jobs, to help book the car on Uber and transfer addresses from the beauty service app. He used to be a private tutor for kids in our area, but since the lockdown, he hasn’t had much work. He’s like my assistant now. Because I’m not educated — even though I’m independent and the sole breadwinner in the family right now — I’m dependent on him.
When my husband can’t come with me, I ask the client, “Ma’am, I don’t know how to book rides on Uber, can you use the app on my mobile phone?” They can usually do it; you just have to ask.
It would be so much easier if I could use the app on my own. If it were in Hindi, it’d be much better. But really, I wish I could just open the app and say, “I’m here, OK, come pick me up!” I wish I could just say it instead of having to type it out.
Lynette Hilt, 55
The stay-at-home mom who says Uber has changed her social life
I was a huge party animal. I used to go to nightclubs or to people’s houses for dinner.
From 1996 to 2003, I had a car and used to drive in Kolkata. Then I moved to Bengaluru for two years and sold my car before the move. When I came back, I was dependent on friends for a ride. I used to turn down a lot of outings because of transportation, because it was so embarrassing to ask.
Respect is the most important thing to me. I was so particular about my reputation that I missed a lot of opportunities. Once, I got all dressed up to go out and stood on the road waiting for a taxi that didn’t come. Eventually, I had to give up and walk back home. It was so sad.
Uber has become a lifeline and a status symbol. I am very safe. Uber comes right to the door. If it’s late at night, I have my 23-year-old son book it so that he can track me. As a single woman, I don’t have to depend on a man to pick me up or drop me home. I use them to go everywhere: the airport, the movies, the doctor, school-reunion parties, Sunday brunch, and to take my parents to the hospital for checkups. If it’s a short distance to get to church, then I take a moto.
The drivers are very well-dressed and very decent. I have a knee problem, so when I get off the moto, I have to hold them for support. I need reconstruction surgery. By that time in the trip, we have become friends. I tell them half my life history. We talk about religion. I tell them I have a son their age, but I don’t tell them that I live alone. I don’t mind if they speed.
Chaahat Mandhyan, 25
The professional wealth manager who says the pandemic has made her dependent on men again
I took the bus only very occasionally because I feel claustrophobic. Uber Go in Kolkata is not economical. Uber Pool is, but you have to sit in it with a mindset that it’s going to take 30 to 40 minutes longer than it normally would. I’m always running late.
In Uber Go, I read about the markets in the papers on my way to work. On the Uber Moto, I listen to music. My favorite song is “We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel. Five minutes before I reach work, I play this song, and I’m all pumped up. Before the pandemic, I would spend 6,000 bucks (about $82) a month on Uber.
The pandemic has increased my dependency on the male members of my community, like my building’s security guard. We bought a scooty so that my guard can drop me off and pick me up at the office. If I keep him waiting because I get delayed trying to finish work, then I get to hear him scream. I don’t know how to ride a scooty, and I’m really scared of sitting on it. My hands are constantly sweating. I just have to get over my fear of an accident. It’s more economical.
One night in December 2019, I took an Uber Go, around 8:30 p.m. I was going to a friend’s party and wearing a dress that came below my knees. I was carrying a shawl. It was cold. I set the Uber to drop me off at a place where my friend would pick me up from there. But I was late, and my friend got pissed, and he took off. Then I changed the destination on my Uber to the location of the party, about 6 kilometers away.
The driver said he wouldn’t go. Then he grabbed my ankle and ran his hand over it. I went blank. I removed his hand, and I said, “What’re you doing?” He turned around to talk to me. I got damn pissed and got out of the cab. I filed a complaint with Uber, but nothing happened. I didn’t want to create a scene. I couldn’t find an Uber, and I didn’t want to take a normal cab to such a big party. Uber is a matter of status.
Even if my phone conks off, I know I can charge my phone in an Uber. I feel safer knowing that I can use the maps on the Uber driver’s phone. But if you’re sitting in a yellow cab and if your phone’s not working or if it’s conked off, there’s no way of tracking. Charging phones is a huge plus point.
Dorothy Nair, 44
The primary school teacher who is afraid of driving
My husband is in the army, so we’ve moved every two years. We’ve lived all over. We’ve seen Punjab; we’ve been towards Maharashtra; we were in Ahmednagar; we stayed in Pune, Kapurthala, Pathankot, Amritsar, and Babina. Now we’re in Kolkata. My husband’s post is in Ambala. While he was here, we were able to use the army transport; the vehicle was available on call. But when the husband is posted elsewhere, then you don’t have the vehicle.
I used to drive many years ago, when my daughters were small, but now I’m scared of driving. Once, I got into an accident in a very crowded area. One of those public buses banged into the car. It was such a crowded place, nothing could be done, and we couldn’t stop. I was worried about my daughter; she was with me, and she was very little. Ever since, I’ve been too afraid. When we came to Kolkata, I joined a driving school, and my friend would come with me. Maybe I’ll drive again when we can get a fully automatic car, the one where all you have to do is press a button. When my husband sends both his daughters abroad, and there’s money left over, maybe we can get a Tesla!
I’ve never actually traveled in anything but Ubers in Kolkata. I’ve asked the teachers: I say, I want to travel in the bus! And they always say, Honestly you may as well leave the bus alone. The teachers at the school, we had a chance to get together before Christmas, and we were talking about what we missed most about school before the lockdowns. They said they missed me getting on the phone with the Uber drivers every day at 2:15 p.m., as soon as school is over. I’d stand by the window, on the phone, like, Dude, where are you? like clockwork, every single day.
In the mornings before school, I light candles and say a very short prayer just before my Uber arrives. Then, when I’m in the Uber, I bring my prayer book with me. I say my prayers; it takes about 15 minutes. On the way back, I have books downloaded on my phone. If there’s a traffic jam, I’ll read on my Kindle app. Romance is my favorite genre, then horror, then mystery.
Dorothy’s daughter Velanie Nair, 20
The student who pockets her spare Uber money for Starbucks
When we first moved to Kolkata, in 2011, we’d take the school bus to and from the Army Public School. And at that time, if we wanted to see our friends, we all had access to Army vehicles. If my father doesn’t have it, their father would have it, or their father would drive us. There was no need for a taxi.
The only time we would use Ubers was when we didn’t want our parents to know where we were going and what we’re doing. Nobody used yellow taxis, and nobody plans on using yellow taxis. We’ll be stranded, and there will be yellow taxis around, and we still won’t use it. When we first arrived in Kolkata, there was a girl in my school who got into a weird situation with a yellow taxi driver, and since then, we decided we’d never use it.
I’d never get in a yellow cab coming home late at night. If something goes wrong, who do you complain to? In an Uber you have the driver’s name, the car number. Even if the driver is rude, you don’t have to complain directly to him. It’s like speaking to the manager. I almost always take home an Uber if I’m out late. Sometimes my parents will come pick me up, but it’s really rare.
I don’t trust anyone who is drunk driving. If I’ve been drinking, I’m never alone even in the Uber. You know how you can add lots of stops on Uber? My friends and I will all book a car together and I always get off before everyone else; I’m never last. I used to party a lot when I was in high school, and all of my friends live in the same place, inside the Army area. We’d share a car to our neighborhood, and once the Uber comes inside, you don’t have to worry.
College is 3 kilometers away. It’s not that far. I ask my mom for Uber money. She gives me 200 [rupees], and then I spend around 110, and then the rest I save as pocket money to go out to a restaurant or Starbucks. The only stuff I buy with my own money, I’ll do with Amazon delivery. I’m into skin care. I think this whole quarantine, I’ve ordered more than 20 toners, lotions, and cleansers.
Shankari Halder, 38
The taxi driver who says driving changed her life but made her marriage more difficult
Five years ago, I was working as a cook. I was barely making money, and I had always dreamt of driving. I had learned to drive and even had a license, but back then, I had lost practice. The couple I was cooking for encouraged me to relearn. They would let me leave work early and gave me a tiffin to take with me every day while I practiced. I joined an NGO that trains and supports women drivers. They trained me and prepared me to drive commercially.
I started out as a personal driver for a woman. Then, with the NGO’s assistance, I took a loan and bought my own car, a white stick shift Maruti Alto, in 2016. Now, I take bookings through the NGO, through Uber, and I pick up passengers at taxi stands. I make three times what I was making as a housemaid and cook.
On most days, when I’m done with the bookings through the NGO, I’ll either go to the taxi stand or take customers through the Uber app. I prefer the NGO bookings because I have all of the details about the customer ahead of time, and it’s more reliable because they book me in advance. With Uber, sometimes there’s a difference between the rate it shows the customer on the app and how it shows for me at the end of the trip. They don’t pay the full amount I’m owed when that happens, and Uber doesn’t compensate for it, so I end up losing money sometimes.
I make more money from Uber than I do at the taxi stand. Let’s say someone books an Uber and cancels it midway: I still get paid. But at taxi stands, I can choose the destination or agree or disagree to take a passenger. With Uber, sometimes I’ll have to drop a passenger off somewhere at the opposite end of town; I don’t know in advance where the ride will take me. Still, I like Uber, because they employ women like me in a male-dominated job.
In the lockdown, I have much fewer bookings. I started doing door-to-door deliveries with my car for an online grocer called Big Basket, to make money. The NGO told me about the app. When I go on deliveries, they’re surprised to see that the delivery person is a woman.
I also train lady drivers commercially, teaching them how to read GPS and all that. On the roads, the police try to harass me sometimes — they think a woman can’t drive as well as a man — but I’m trained to speak with them, and they let me go.
Nothing makes me happier than driving, but my husband has a huge problem with it. He believes driving is a man’s job. Even after five years, he says, “The cooking work was better. We had less money, but I was happier with it.” Once, a female customer’s late-night flight was delayed, and I got home late. My husband started a fight; he accused me of cheating. He beat me up. He was arrested for it a few hours later. The police told him that he couldn’t take away my right to work just because he’s my husband.
But my neighbors are very happy and proud of me. They love me so much. I’ve appeared on television and in the newspaper so many times, but my husband’s mentality is that I’m a woman, so I have to listen to him.
My next plan is to learn to drive a truck. I have this itch to sit behind a big steering wheel. I have never seen a woman in Kolkata drive a bus or a truck, and I want to learn it because it’s something only men do.