Kantheti Srinivas remembers the occasion only too well.

It was sometime in August last year when his colleague Vijaya Nangare narrated an incident that got him thinking. A young woman, specialising in facials, had come to her home in Pune and during the course of work described how difficult it was to access proper transport.

As Co-Founder and Managing Director of WheelsEMI, which primarily finances used two-wheelers, Srinivas realised that there was something the company could do for this woman.

It was also during the course of the conversation with Nangare, who was then the company’s branch manager in Pune, did he learn that there were a host of other women who needed help in the mobility space.

“We decided to give them a helping hand because it was clear that there were facing huge problems moving from one place to another in Pune. The best way to solve their problem was giving them their own mobility solution in the form of a used scooter,” elaborates Srinivas.

When WheelsEMI got into the picture, another surprise was awaiting Srinivas and his colleagues. The women were not keen on buying used scooters and wanted new ones instead. The company helped them out and, since then, the lives of these proud owners have improved considerably.

Loan hurdles

What was disheartening during this exercise was that banks were not exactly enthusiastic about supporting these women wholeheartedly and wanted their husbands/fathers to guarantee the loan. Not only was the attitude distinctly patriarchal but the bigger obstacle was that the men themselves had bad credit history and had dragged their wives as co-applicants into situations where they were not able to access a loan!

WheelsEMI was able to underwrite the loan based on earning potential without any co-applicants and the women are now the proud owners of scooters.“They can now zip around comfortably and can take on more assignments in their areas of work,” says Srinivas.

Many of them had to be helped with driving licences but they took to riding like a duck takes to water. In the process, their incomes have also increased, which makes it a lot easier to pay off their loans.

By the end of the day, it is unquestionably the scooter that has transformed their lives. And to think that this is just one instance of a narrative where mobility has truly liberated the women of India. As Srinivas says, this is happening across every nook and corner of the country where the scooter has played a big role in enhancing their lives.

The WheelsEMI chief is also quick to remind you that patriarchal attitudes are changing and it is not as if parts of north India are still rooted in the feudal mindset of men calling the shots. He cites the case of his recent visit to Meerut in Uttar Pradesh where women in all age groups were using scooters.

“It was quite an astonishing sight to see students, housewives and professionals going about their work efficiently. Independent mobility has been the best thing that happened to them,” says Srinivas. Compared to Pune, which has been ahead of the curve in emancipation for women, this was a big deal in Meerut which is the exact opposite.

The credit for this change goes to the scooter wave that has helped women in remote parts of India steer clear of crowded buses or packed tempos to reach their destinations. Not only was this option uncomfortable but there were issues on safety and privacy.

Easy mobility

The scooter has now emerged their best ally especially when there are job opportunities in malls, call centres and auto dealerships that are mushrooming rapidly across towns. Add to this the aspiration for education and you now find the small town girl busy commuting between her home and college or to coaching classes without breaking a sweat.

Likewise, housewives are now able to drop their kids to school while engaging in part-time employment. “At WheelsEMI today more than 15 per cent of of our customers are women — not enough but a good start,” says Srinivas.

“It makes perfect business sense to give loans to women, their repayment track is excellent and we are happy that in a small way we are contributing to their rising employment and employability,” he adds.

When the entire world is celebrating International Women’s Day on Friday, it is stories like these that really matter especially in a diverse landscape like India.

For those whose exposure is only limited to cities, there is perhaps no reason to make a song and dance about women in cars, SUVs or scooters. From their point of view, they work with women colleagues who are smart, articulate and independent. Owning wheels is only an extension of their personality.

However, in smaller towns where it is the men who typically call the shots, accessing personal mobility is truly a big deal for women. The scooter has done wonders in enhancing their confidence, self-esteem and, more importantly, helped men change their mindsets about women.

Gearless scooter revolution

The gearless scooter first appeared on Indian terrain in the 1980s when it was also ironically the onset of the motorcycle wave. At that point in time, it was not considered macho to be seen riding on this product, which was then part of the Kinetic Honda umbrella.

Yet, it was the first big mobility alternative for women in cities even while the smaller moped was an earlier entrant. It was only when Honda came in on its own with the Activa did the gearless scooter revolution actually take off in right earnest.

What was also interesting in the process was that while women welcomed it with open arms, men did not feel too squeamish about being seen on a scooter too. After all, the realties of traffic and comfort of riding more than made up for any perception issues.

The Activa truly empowered women in cities along with the TVS Scooty and it was only a matter of time before other companies joined the scooter bandwagon. Yet, the fact remains that rural penetration in scooters is still little to write home for a variety of reasons ranging from inadequate micro-finance options to poor roads.

Hopefully all this will change in the coming years since it has now been clearly demonstrated how the scooter has helped Indian women become more independent and hold their own in an ecosystem tilted towards patriarchy.

In the automotive space, women are now seen in a range of functions right from the shop floor to engineering and R&D. There are some top women CEOs, both in India and across the world, who have also shown that they are second to none in an industry largely perceived to be the domain of men.