India's rise in sex crimes drives boost for women cabbies
THE alleged rape of a woman passenger by an Uber taxi driver once again puts the spotlight on the risks of India's transport system, which fails to keep women safe.
One solution: Taxis driven by women for women.
Last year, the southern state of Kerala launched She Taxi, a fleet of 40 pink taxis run by women and fitted with wireless tracking gear and panic buttons linked to call centres.
Now, the service has become a model for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government to replicate nationwide, said She Taxi chief executive P. T. M. Sunish.
She Taxi has ferried 24,000 people on about 10,000 trips since November last year. Demand exceeds supply, so much so that as many as half of the callers have to be turned away, said the CEO.
"I feel secure and the family is satisfied," said Aswathy Sreekumar, 25, a technology worker who has used the service for seven months, after finishing work at midnight. "Otherwise, I keep getting calls from my parents."
A rise in sex crimes has prompted Indian states and small firms to launch taxi services run by women. The trend grew after December 2012 protests over the rape of a young woman on a moving bus in New Delhi and her subsequent death.
"The Delhi incident shows the need for 'She Taxis' all over the country," Mr Sunish told Reuters.
Tougher laws and promises of better policing have proved ineffectual. India's public transport system is the fourth-most dangerous in the world for women, and night-time safety ranks second worst, a recent poll showed. Women commuters face sexual harassment and public transport is seen as risky.
"The Uber incident reinforces that you are safer when a taxi is driven by a woman. People would be keener now," said social activist Susieben Shah, who started Priyadarshini Taxi Service in 2010 in Mumbai. It now aims to expand to New Delhi and the southern tech hub of Bengaluru.
Another company - Sakha Cabs, with 14 taxis in the capital - plans to expand in nearby western Jaipur and in eastern Kolkata.
Still, expansion is slow. Reluctant investors fear the tiny number of women drivers will brake future expansion, and India's male-dominated social structure will deter aspiring drivers.
After the Uber incident, India is stepping up support for such training, an official of the Ministry of Women and Child Development told Reuters.
But critics say better security is the answer.
"The government always resorts to knee-jerk reactions," said Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research. "Failure in law-and-order implementation cannot be compensated by such measures."