15 Oct, 2014
Sarah Rooney and Nayan Pokhrel (Fixer)
“When I saw other women driving tempos I thought to myself, surely I can do this too,” says Shanti, a 25-year-old Nepali tempo driver [tuk-tuks are more commonly referred to as “tempos” in Nepal]. “Truth is, it was pretty difficult to begin with. I had an accident on my first day and injured a pedestrian. Because I didn’t want my boss to know about it, I settled the damages myself. But I stuck with it, and actually became a pretty good driver…”
First introduced to Nepal in the early-1990s, electric three-wheeled tempos are the result of a government scheme to alleviate the Kathmandu Valley’s chronic air pollution by replacing diesel-powered three-wheelers. The tempos function as small buses that seat ten passengers. Each tempo uses 12 batteries that provide enough electricity for Shanti to run five or six rounds of her route across Patan, one of the three closely connected cities located in the Kathmandu Valley. After that, she has to go back to the depot so that mechanics can replace the batteries while she takes a lunch break.
The maths is simple. For each run, Shanti pays the depot owner 300 rupees (just over US$3); beyond that, whatever she collects from passengers, she’s allowed to keep. If she has fewer passengers, she ends up with a deficit. There are numerous events beyond her control that can reduce the number of potential passengers, such as bad rainstorms, extremely cold weather, bad traffic or road-works. The constant juggle to ensure she makes a profit keeps Shanti working 13-14 hours a day seven days a week.
“What I really wanted was to be a soldier…”
Shanti migrated to the city from a village in the far eastern mountains of Nepal due to the now-ended Maoist insurgency. The constant fighting, curfews, and sieges made it impossible for her parents to support a large family of nine children so, when Shanti was 13 years old, she left school and was sent to the capital. At first, she did odd-job chores for her sister who was running a guesthouse but as she grew older she had to find work that would bring in more cash to support the rest of the family back home.
“What I really wanted was to be a soldier,” says Shanti. “That would’ve been a great career. Prestigious, too, especially for a woman, as the number of female candidates is limited.” But circumstances forced her to leave school early so she never sat the national board exams (taken at the end of tenth grade) that are required for a military job.
Another option open to women with limited education would have been to apply to one of Nepal’s countless manpower agencies and seek work abroad, as more than two million Nepali laborers are currently doing. “I thought about that quite seriously but kept hearing bad stories about what happens to women out there,” says Shanti. “Some are told they’re going to one country but end up in another. Some think they’re going to work in a factory but end up as a housemaid. And I know women who’ve been sexually abused. There are so many stories we hear about that kind of thing…”
Then, a few years ago, an opening came up at a tempo depot and Shanti applied to become one of the depot’s five female drivers.
“Women are actually safer drivers, really!”
Women started driving tempos in Nepal in the late 1990s, not long after they became a popular mode of informal public transport. Initially, female drivers had to put up with jeering and abuse as driving was traditionally considered man’s work but, with some 300female tempo drivers now on the roads, they have become a common sight. Some passengers, particularly female ones, even prefer them. “Back then, they thought women couldn’t drive properly but I think that women are actually safer drivers, really!” says Shanti. “I know from being on the roads all day that we are certainly more cautious and careful than male drivers.”
The daily hazards of tuk-tuk driving
In addition to being able to drive well, tempo drivers face other daily challenges. One of Shanti’s colleagues is plagued by passengers who insist on arguing over the fare whenever there’s been a government-regulated increase. For Shanti, traffic police are the biggest problem; in the chaos of the city’s streets tempo drivers, especially female ones, make easy prey.
Though a labour union for informal transport workers tries to help drivers involved in traffic accidents, there is little the union can do about corrupt or aggressive traffic police. The rules state that only ten passengers are allowed in the back of a tempo, and only one up front next to the driver. If a few more squeeze in or if a passenger jumps off at a traffic light, Shanti is liable to fines or on-the-spot bribes that range from the equivalent of 50 cents to US$10 (which, on some days, can account for her entire daily earnings). “I can’t always control the passengers when I’m concentrating on the road,” she says. “There’s a lot to look out for – cyclists and pedestrians can come out of nowhere and if I don’t see them, well, it’s bad for both of us!”
I won’t be doing this forever…
There are perks to the job – Shanti counts some of her female colleagues as close friends and, at the depot, her boss lets her keep a stray dog she rescued called Pucche (“Little One”) who greets her with unrestrained enthusiasm whenever she returns from her rounds – but she can’t imagine doing this forever. With tempo drivers earning an average of US$150-200 a month, it’s not enough for Shanti to put any savings aside. “It all comes down to how I can make money because there are many family responsibilities I have to bear at the moment,” she says. With no children of her own to care for, the burden for looking after her aging parents falls on her. A year ago, Shanti’s mother died after a long illness and she is now caring for her elderly father back home in the village.
Having considered going abroad for work when she was younger and dismissed the idea as too dangerous, Shanti is weighing up the pros and cons once more. “I know it’s not safe but, recently, I’ve been hearing stories that it’s a bit safer if you can get to Japan. So, I’m thinking, maybe I’ll try and go there one day…”
This article is part of our ongoing series Tales from the Himalaya: Urban Lives in Kathmandu.
Photos by Nic Dunlop for Asia Dialogue