A file photo of Meru Cabs. Photo: HT
A file photo of Meru Cabs. Photo: HT

As demand for women-only cab services grow, challenges loom

Lack of investments and perception as an empowerment group are deterrents to the women-only cab services

New Delhi: When Meru Cabs announced the launch of MeruEve last week, it joined a list already populated by names such as Sakha Wings Consulting, Viira Cabs, Priyadarshini Taxi Service, She Taxi and Angel City Cabs.

Operating across cities such as Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kochi, all these are cab services run especially for women and more importantly, with women drivers.

Meru Cabs representatives say the company has been planning this venture for some time but that the 5 December rape of a young woman by the driver of an online cab service accelerated the process.

In the light of increasing crimes against women, especially in public spaces, more women are seeking a safe way to travel. In public transport this takes on the form of segregated modes of transport—women only metro coaches, ladies special buses and women only auto-rickshaws.

By providing women-only services with women drivers, cab companies hope to provide another option.

“We have so many women customers who hire the cab to travel to Pune or Nashik for work. At the end of a long day, a woman can even fall asleep while travelling back, something that would be unthinkable of in other cabs," says Preeti Sharma Menon, managing director of Viira, which operates in and around Mumbai.

Still, despite the huge demand, the going has been tough for women-only cab companies. Most are struggling to stay afloat. “Running a cab service requires a call centre, 24-hour mechanic backup, a big team of drivers and, of course, a fleet," says Menon, who admits her company is struggling. She says that Viira needs at least 100 cabs to break even. “Where will we get the money from?"

Despite lack of advertising, most women are aware of these dedicated cab services, but these firms are unable to cater to the demand due to their small fleets.

Money, according to Revathi Roy, the pioneer of women cab services in India, is the biggest barrier to be crossed. “Money has to flow in to make sure that women can be trained. Once that barrier is broken, the floodgates will open as there is such a demand for this," she says.

Roy launched For-She in 2007. Though she had entered into a strategic tie-up with Orix, she exited that in 2009. Today, she is one of the co-founders of Viira.

Viira received 1.7 crore from an angel investor in 2010, but its subsequent efforts to raise money in India have come to naught.

The problem is also one of perception. Women-only cab services run a risk of being perceived as empowerment platforms as opposed to business models, something that Roy finds baffling. “Any kind of business financially empowers someone so this cannot be viewed through the prism of gender."

And while big companies such as Meru Cabs getting into the act is welcome, the existing companies say they will have to work hard on this aspect. “Women cab services cannot be tokenism. Commitment would require an investment at every step, beginning with training," cautions Menon.

Safe modes of transport are considered to be one of the critical factors when it comes to women and public spaces. “Safety audits have shown that there aren’t enough women out there. Anything that increases their numbers is a welcome move," says Kalpana Viswanath of Jagori, a Delhi-based non-governmental organization that has worked extensively in the field of public spaces.

And while women-only transport services are welcome, she does feel the attention needs to be more on systematic changes. “A customer feels safe in a cab if they know the car is traceable; there is someone who is responsible for the driver," Viswanath said. “We need a set up where all forms of transport are safe for women."

Most services for women are often colour coded, so the ladies compartment sign in the metro is done up in bright pink while the MeruEve cabs have splashes of fuschia. In Gurgaon, women-only auto-rickshaws are done up in bright pink. “I don’t really see the point of colour," says Roy. For her the main concern has always been branding, “the name should be visible".

For Viswanath, the colours seem to shout to the world that there is a single woman travelling in the vehicle rather than cloaking her in anonymity.

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