Female rickshaw driver in poll bid

Sunitha Choudhury spreads her campaign message of helping the poor from her rickshaw.

    Sunitha Choudhury became the city's first woman auto-rickshaw driver five years ago 

    First she escaped a violent child marriage to achieve the unthinkable - becoming the first and only woman to drive an auto-rickshaw on the streets of the Indian capital, New Delhi.

    Now she wants to become an MP.

    Sunitha Choudhury says she wants to be in parliament so that she can represent the poor.

    When she trudges around the slums and poor quarters of the suburb of Malivya Nagar, she tells the poor that she has the "same roots" as they do and, unlike other rich candidates from the established parties, understands their needs and sorrows.

    "I tell them that I am one of them. I understand their need for jobs, homes, education and water. You cannot have dignity the way the poor live," she says.

    Choudhury is ploughing a lonely furrow as the candidate of the United Women's Front, launched in 2007 to bring more women into politics. She has been chosen for the grit and courage she has shown in her personal life.

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    Five years ago, she became the city's first woman auto-rickshaw driver. This poorly paid profession is a male bastion. Few Indian women, even the poor and desperate, want to drive around the streets at night, open to the elements and vulnerable to violence.

    But Choudhury is undaunted. Her background since the age of 12 has given her no choice but to learn to be tough.

    She arrived in the city in 1995 at the age of 14. She had been married at 12 to a violent alcoholic in a village near Meerut. Her in-laws also beat her.

    She fled, pregnant and penniless, to New Delhi. After her two-month-old baby girl died, she worked for nine years at a health care centre in Mehrauli.

    Helping the helpless

    One evening, while walking home, she stumbled across an accident victim lying horribly injured on the road.

    She hailed an auto-rickshaw or "auto" as they are known here and took the young man to hospital. The doctors gave him no hope but, against the odds, he survived after six months in hospital. 

    "That was when I first thought of driving an auto," she says.

    "It allowed me to help the absolutely helpless. I want to become an MP because I want power - power to do my social work more effectively."

    Over the years, she has picked up innumerable accident victims from the streets and taken them to hospital. She always stays until the relatives arrive and later appears in court as an eye-witness if necessary. 

    When she applied for an auto-rickshaw licence, transport officials fobbed her off, saying women were not eligible. When for two years she refused to take no for an answer, they relented.

    Choudhury is an odd candidate in a society where women are regarded as misfits if they do not have a husband in tow. 

    She is 33, divorced, wears her hair short and sports a white shirt tucked into tight white trousers.

    A 'man's job'

    Women passengers are often full of admiration for her achievements. Male passengers vary from respect to sneering at her for doing a "man's job".

    Indian women fly planes, launch satellites, and run multi-nationals but no-one, except Choudhury, has stormed this humble male bastion. She is pleased, though, that an all-women taxi service has just been launched in the city. 

    Auto-rickshaw drivers are near the bottom of the social heap. This is why Choudhury has no money for rallies, processions, posters or advertising. 

    "I know what poverty can do to you. It makes your life shameful and dishonourable"

    Sunitha Choudhury, auto-rickshaw driver and election candidate

    She moves around the city urging voters to support her in her auto-rickshaw or on foot. Other candidates travel in cavalcades or limousines, surrounded by flunkies and party workers and supported by the weight of their respective party organisations. 

    Choudhury's only campaign tool is a cheap leaflet showing her party symbol - an electricity pole.

    "I'm hoping that everyone who has travelled in my auto-rickshaw will vote for me. I know what poverty can do to you. It makes your life shameful and dishonourable," says Choudhury. 

    Her manifesto is to give the poor in the capital electricity, homes, and piped water. 

    She could do with these things herself. She lives in a rented room and shares a toilet with eight other families. Her daily earnings are around 500 rupees.

    Her day starts at 7am and goes on until midnight or later, seven days a week. Her room has no TV. She is never there to watch it. 

    "I'd rather work and earn some money than watch TV or films. Anyway, I see enough drama on the roads every day - couples holding hands, fights, drunks and accidents - so I don't need more scenes," she says.

    Slim chances

    Choudhury's chances of being elected, despite her confidence and capacity for hard work, are slim. Arrayed against her in New Delhi are some political veterans. 

    But, by standing, she wants to persuade "ordinary" women like herself to enter politics. In India's last parliament, only eight per cent of the MPs were women. Of the 7,000 candidates in this general election, only 490 are women and most belong to powerful political families. 

    Choudhury wants to see more Indian women get involved in politics
    "We need more women in decision-making. Only they can understand the issues of dowry, domestic violence, rape and feeling unsafe on the streets," said Suman Krishan Kant, the founder of United Women's Front. 

    Despite Indira Gandhi, a former prime minister, Pratibha Patil, the current president of India, and Sonia Gandhi, the president of the Congress Party, Indian politics is still a largely male monopoly. 

    The United Women's Front wants half the seats in parliament and in the state legislatures to be reserved for women. A bill reserving 33 per cent of seats for women has been pending for over a decade. None of the parties is keen enough to push it through. 

    Apart from the time demanded by a political career, Indian politics is tainted by crime and corruption.

    "It's very difficult to persuade women to get into politics because it is full of aggression, muscle power and money," said Sudha Ramachandran, a member of the Front. 

    Choudhury is sanguine about being elected. Polling in Delhi took place on Thursday in the fourth phase of voting.

    Following the fifth and final round of voting on May 13, the results will be announced on May 16. 

    Even if she fails, it does not mean she will give up. She will try the next time round.

    Meanwhile, she has a lot of other things to do. She wants to shut down all the liquor outlets in her village where her parents still live because drunken husbands cause their wives so much suffering.

    She also wants to teach poor women to drive autos. This job gave her self-respect and independence. She wants other women to join her. 

    "I feel like a queen when I drive around the city," she says.

    "I am in control of my destiny, I can earn my living and I am happy."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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