KOLKATA, India – As the clock strikes 2 p.m., the narrow lanes of Thakurpukur are desolate: The blazing afternoon sun has forced residents to stay indoors. But not everyone. A lone rickshaw crosses one of the lanes in a blur. The driver is Mithu Pandit, a woman rickshaw-puller who operates across Kolkata’s southwest.
Despite the scorching weather, Pandit hardly has time to rest. She is constantly on the lookout for new customers as she peddles her rickshaw from one neighborhood to another.
Pandit is the only woman in her profession in the state of West Bengal, but she takes no pride in this fact. She says her priority is simply to fulfill the needs of her son and daughter at any cost. She may be a trailblazer, but hers is not a good news story.
The 26-year-old says her journey into this male-dominated profession began over a year ago when her husband, himself a rickshaw-puller, became an alcoholic.
“He started missing work and increased his involvement with liquor. I occasionally began to peddle [the] rickshaw to earn a living for my family,” she says. Today, she is the sole breadwinner.
Her husband used to rent his rickshaw for 30 rupees (46 cents) a day, but Pandit bought hers outright. After deciding to give up her work as a domestic maid, she borrowed 3,000 rupees ($46) to purchase a secondhand rickshaw. She now earns 100 rupees every day ($1.50) compared to the 900 rupees ($14) she would earn each month as a maid.
But money isn’t the only reason Pandit switched professions. “I thought that it is a flexible profession with no fixed duty hours,” she says.
“My work perfectly suits my daily routine that includes dropping my children to school in the morning before going to work, then bringing them back in the afternoon and having a lunch with them.”
Still, the days are long. After a siesta, Pandit hits the roads again while her children stay home, often alone. She works for as long as it takes to earn enough for a day’s food for the family.
“I take a quick stop and have a glance at them while crossing through the area with passengers,” she says. “Sometimes I have to work for 13–14 hours a day … I cannot return empty-handed.”
Pandit says that while her earnings have increased, survival is very difficult. “I earn 3,000–3,500 rupees ($46–$54) every month. But I have to pay house rental, expenses on food and education for the children and deal with my violent and alcoholic husband,” she says. “The financial condition is slightly better but the situation is still far from normal.”
She says part of the trouble she has earning money is due to her fellow rickshaw-pullers, all of them men.
“They do not allow me to even stand in a line and wait for the passengers,” she says. “They have threatened to go on a strike if I continue to work. They are finding it difficult to digest that a woman is working among them.”
Her customers, however, praise her work and her determination to provide for her family.
“I have never seen a woman doing such a job. I am really proud of her. No work is too big or small. She has to endure so much pain and struggle just to raise her children,” says Gopal Patro, a 55-year-old grocery shop owner who often rides in her rickshaw. “The government should step forward and help people like her.”
Shikha Mazumdar, a 45-year-old homemaker, says she feels safer with a woman driver.
“I often return home late in evening hours and the lane leading to my house turns desolate after the sunset. It is riskier to take a ride on a rickshaw peddled by a male but the journey is safe with Mithu.”
Paresh Mallick, the secretary of the local rickshaw union, says his organization is trying to help her earn more.
“I have never come across any woman peddling the rickshaw in the past 40 years of my association with rickshaw-pullers,” he says. “I feel proud of her, but at the same time there is also a bit of sadness that she has to undergo severe hardship to run her family.
“I have decided to shift her to a new area where the resistance would be comparatively less because of fewer numbers of rickshaw-pullers. I have also told her to contact me immediately if a rickshaw-puller or a customer tries to misbehave with her.
“Our union strongly stands with her and with any other woman who decides to ply the rickshaw.”
Pandit says she doesn’t know what the future holds for her. It’s hard to see more than a day ahead as she works to feed her family.
“Destiny has been cruel to me since childhood. I have faced a lot of hardships and will continue to face whatever challenge life throws at me.
“If I do not get any job with a decent income, I will continue to ferry people like this.”