The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Tamil women in driver’s seat
Breaking barriers: Hameedha Banu at her seat in a metropolitan transport corporation bus in Chennai. Picture by Souraa

Tambaram (Tamil Nadu), Aug. 3: Unmindful of the early morning chatter among her male colleagues, Hameedha walks nonchalantly into the depot office clad in her khaki uniform.

“I am just in time today…, haven’t even combed my hair,” Hameedha smiles as she loosely fastens her hair with a rubber-band and hurries to sign the register and head to the parking bay to take her bus out.

S.K. Hameedha Banu, 27, is one of the two women drivers appointed recently by the Metropolitan Transport Corporation. Chennai has had women bus conductors before but none in the driving seat until now — the appointment marks the breaching of another gender barrier under the Jayalalithaa regime.

Hameedha and Savithri were upgraded to an “all-passengers” bus after a short stint at the wheel of a ladies special. Both drivers are in charge of buses on route 18A — from suburban Tambaram to Broadway in Chennai — a busy segment at all times. The duo alternate between morning and afternoon shifts, accompanied by a woman conductor.

Savithri, is excited at being appointed to drive a general “white-board bus” that halts at every stop. “Luckily, we have been given a super new bus that makes our job easier,” she says.

As Hameedha rushes to the transport corporation depot at 5.30 am to sign the register and collect her time sheet, her middle-aged male colleagues are congratulating themselves for not having joined the recent government employees’ strike.

Most of the buses are in bad-shape with the cash-strapped transport corporation unable to order replacements. But as she waits while her vehicle is washed and the radiator topped with water, Hameedha points out: “You see, we were lucky to be given a new bus.”

Hailing from Keelakarai in Ramanathapuram district, Hameedha recalls that she was passionate about “bus driving” since the time she was doing a diploma course in mechanical engineering at the Mohammed Sathak polytechnic.

“As you know, Muslims are very conservative, but my parents (school teachers Kahder Hussain and Mahabul Beevi) had so much confidence in me that they encouraged me to go out and study at a polytechnic, and (had) no complaints about (my) latecoming either,” she said.

After earning a diploma in 1997, Hameedha got a job as an apprentice at an automobile workshop. During the three months preceding the workshop, “I took formal heavy duty drivers’ training at the Institute for Road Transport at Karaikudi.

She adds: “I used to drive the polytechnic bus daily from Keelakarai to Ramanathapuram — that put me on the front foot.”

But with no regular job materialising, Hameedha enrolled for a four-year degree course in aeronautical engineering at the same polytechnic. President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam also had his initial grounding in the same subject.

“But even while doing my third year, I got an appointment (letter) from the transport corporation and decided to take it up since a government job is a gift these days,” says Hameedha as she starts the bus and rolls it out of the Tambaram depot.

“I like this job and when so many of my male colleagues here work on a temporary basis, I feel happy that I have been made a permanent driver so soon,” she adds. Hameedha says her aim is “to become a motor vehicles inspector and I see this (her present job) as only a stop-gap”.

Taking out a second-hand mobile telephone, Hameedha adds: “Driving is an art and it will be challenging if I am given a traffic-dense route.”

She then turns towards “Dolly aunty”, the veteran conductor accompanying her on the trip, who has served 23 years in the post.

“The reckless footboard travel by the youth, particularly during peak hours, the occasional snide remarks and comments by students at the young women in the driver’s seat” worries Dolly. “Doing duty in a ladies’ special is a lot easier,” she says.

But the younger women go about their job confidently, deriving comfort from the way women have become empowered under Jayalalithaa’s rule.

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