At the busy ema market (also known as mother’s market) junction in Manipur’s State capital Imphal, Laibi Oinam halts for passengers to hop on to her public transport — a shared three-wheeled autorickshaw, all the while keeping an eye out for the traffic police that keeps a strict vigil on commercial vehicles.
A Nike cap on her head, hair tucked loosely behind, sporting a shirt, trouser and hand gloves, 50-year-old Laibi Oinam drives her autorickshaw slowly, looking for potential passengers. As she moves, she calls out the destination, “Khuman Lampak, Khuman Lampak”.
A public transport driver since 2011, Oinam’s body language reflects her experience, and the way she conducts herself indicates her immense skill both in driving and dealing with people. After all, she is the only woman commercial driver in Imphal.
However, this ease did not come easy. A mother of two, she took to the male-dominated profession out of sheer necessity, learnt driving on her own after watching others drive and, even today, faces some amount of discrimination from family and friends.
But steadfast in her self-belief, she begins her day at 11 am. For someone offering public transport, that’s a late start. She has an explanation: “I finish all the house work, have my food and begin the service”. She is on the road till around 7 pm. She then goes home, in Pangel, Imphal West, and attends to domestic chores before calling it a day.
Her earnings keep her home and family going. “That’s how I am running my house,” she says. On some days, she earns extra. During occasions such as Holi, people hire her auto as transport for the festival. “This Holi I earned an extra ₹1,000-plus. A group from my area reserved my auto to go around for Yaoshang Paisakhaiba (Holi donation collection)” A shared auto ride in a city like Imphal costs ₹10 per person for a distance of 4-5 km, which takes half-an-hour to cover. An autorickshaw can carry a maximum of 10 adults. On average, Oinam can earn ₹1,000-1,500 a day. In addition to this, she rears poulty at home and has 300 birds.
No option but to take the plunge
It was her husband’s illness that pushed her into working. Not long after her marriage, her husband, who was a daily wage earner, developed acute diabetes and general weakness.
“After the birth of my first child, my husband could no longer go for work.” With all her savings, Oinam had earlier bought a second-hand auto, which her husband initially drove. But when he could no longer ride it she decided to take on the task. “There was no other option,” she recalls. “I had to feed the family”. Oinam driving — it was unusual for a woman to drive a three-wheeler in Imphal — caught the attention of Panthoibi Housing, a financial company. “I did not seek a loan, instead they called me and offered me one because of the crisis my family was facing,” she says. She bought a new auto for about ₹3 lakh and is yet to re-pay the loan.
Before she learnt to drive a three-wheeler, she only rode a bicycle. But she picked up driving rather easily. She used to observe drivers and thus learnt the skill. But on the road, it was not a smooth ride. “People stared at me,” she says, for they were startled to see a woman auto driver. The attention often came with a remark ridiculing her. “People would laugh at me. They would ask if I was a transgender. Or they would ask, “don’t you have a husband?” Even her family resented her driving. Her two sons, particularly, were in tears when she started to drive. They feared people would mock her.
There was another problem that she had to confront — her attire. She says wearing a phanek (the traditional Manipuri women’s wear) put off passengers. Initially, when she started out, she wore a phanek and passengers were not willing to sit in the auto. That is the reason she now dresses in shirt and trouser.
Oinam’s compulsions gave her a new life. She says had it not been for her husband’s illness, she would not be where she is today.
She never imagined that one day she would be a commercial driver. Though it is a daily struggle to earn her livelihood and take care of the family, one thing is for sure — Oinam loves to drive. She dreams of driving big cars, or even a bus one day.
Every morning the road beckons and she answers its call.
The writer is a Manipur-based journalist