In 2013, Ranchi became the first Indian city to introduce “pink autos” driven by women, as a safety measure after the Delhi gang rape case of December 16, 2012. Gurgaon launched them for a few months in 2014, failed, and then re-introduced them a year later. Over the past two years, pink autos have been plying the streets of Bhubaneshwar, Ghaziabad, Rohtak, and some other cities, with varying degrees of success.

This year, Mumbai and neighbouring cities will join the club, but only if auto unions resolve their curious opposition to the “salmon orange” colour that the state wants to introduce for women's special autos.

In January, Maharashtra’s transport department was reported to have issued auto driving permits to 548 women across the state, of whom 465 were from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. The women drivers would predominantly serve women commuters, although there is no bar on male passengers using these autos.

The state hoped to launch the coloured auto services in February, and expected to get many more women drivers applying for permits. But nearly six months later, women-only autos are nowhere to be found on the streets of Mumbai, Thane or Navi Mumbai, because unions and drivers are uncomfortable with the vehicles being painted salmon orange.

The permit business

Salmon orange – called aboli in Marathi – isn’t as readily associated with women the way the bright pink autos of Ranchi or Rohtak are, but the choice of colour is not the cause of dispute in Mumbai. Instead, unions would rather have women-driven autos look exactly the same as the black-and-yellow autos driven by men.

“Unions say that women drivers would be unsafe if their autos are painted a separate colour, because then they will stand out,” said Hemangini Patil, the deputy road transport officer of Thane. In Thane district, 156 auto driving permits have been on offer to women for the past few months, and so far, 76 women have applied for and received permits.

When auto unions talk about their problem with salmon orange paint, however, safety of drivers isn’t really their top concern.

“According to the rule, if a woman is given a permit for driving an auto, then that vehicle can only be driven by her or another licensed woman – never a man,” said Prakash Penkar, the Konkan region president of the Thani Zilla Rikshaw-Taxi Mahasangh. “But lady drivers are not easy to find, so if women drivers fall sick or take maternity leave, the coloured autos will just be lying idle.”

Even though Penkar’s union claims to be encouraging young women to take up auto driving as a profession, the organisation believes it is vital for the state to allow women drivers to share their permits to both male and female drivers if necessary. “Keeping an auto idle can cost up to Rs 150 a day, if you consider maintenance costs and the loans that drivers may be in,” he said.

In Maharashtra, the state government issues auto and taxi drivers’ permits for a few hundred rupees, and mandates that permit-holders must drive their vehicle for at least one shift per day. For the remaining shifts, most drivers tend to rent out their permits to others, often at rates as high as Rs 1.5 lakh a year. Some permit-holders don’t even bother driving their autos for that one shift, and renting out permits can be a rather lucrative business for them.

“It is possible that auto unions and drivers want to be able to rent out the permits freely to men instead of waiting for another woman driver to show up,” said Patil.

Ranchi shows the way

In Ranchi, where pink autos by women drivers have been plying for three years, the issues raised by Mumbai unions have never been a matter of concern.

“We love the fact that our autos are pink,” said Shanti Lakra, a driver in Ranchi who has been ferrying women and “families” in her pink auto for nearly two years. “The distinct colour helps us build our identity – passengers know from a distance that these are autos run by women, so they feel safer riding with us.”

Drivers like Lakra have faced little harassment as female drivers themselves, and have never given a second thought to the fact that men are not allowed to drive pink autos under any circumstances.

“If any of us is on leave for a while or can’t drive because of pregnancy, we simply find another woman to drive our autos for a while,” said Devi Diras, 32, one of the first women to sign up as a pink auto driver in Ranchi. “Women drivers are few in number, but why should that be a problem?”