Vital Voices of India: Women’s Leadership and Training Summit

New Delhi, Sep 19 (Calcutta Tube) When Revathi Siddhartha Roy ferried her first passenger from the international airport in Mumbai in 2007, she unleashed a gender revolution on the streets, powering the only cab service by women and for women in India. But three years later she is struggling to keep it on the roads as both banks and micro-credit institutions have refused her loans.

Starting out as the lone woman at the wheel of a commercial taxi – she got the idea from similar services in many world cities – Revathi turned entrepreneur with the unique Forsche dial-a-cab service that operates in Mumbai and Delhi. But now she’s finding it tough to go ahead with expansion plans.

‘The banks have refused me loans on the premise that girls who aspire to become taxi drivers are not economically viable. They cannot offer collateral because all of them are from below the poverty line,’ Revathi, 49, told IANS in the capital.

The entrepreneur was in the capital to participate in a two-day conference, ‘Vital Voices of India: Women’s Leadership and Training Summit’.

The petite mother of three, who lost her husband in 2006, is disillusioned with the credit institutions and the government. Last year’s downturn, coupled with the inaccessibility of micro-finance in India for grassroots women entrepreneurs, has pushed her to the brink.

‘We have reached a stage where growth is not possible. We cannot train any new girls though at least 500 girls are on the list, waiting to be trained as taxi drivers,’ she said.

Revathi is a graduate of Mumbai’s St Xavier’s College with a Ph.d degree in Economics from Toronto.

‘I took my first taxi on lease and gradually acquired several vehicles to start a cab service for women,’ she said.

The Forsche service pioneered by her has a fleet of 30 white Versa automobiles exclusively manned by women to cater to Mumbai’s burgeoning tribe of women commuters.

‘What began as one taxi on Mumbai streets has grown to 60 in three years covering Delhi as well. I accessorised the cabs by adding small feminine touches like make-up kits, bigger mirrors and nail polish removers. The cab service was a tool of women’s empowerment on the streets,’ Revathi said.

In 2009, she launched the Forsche service in Delhi with 30 taxis. While the number to hail one of these cabs in Mumbai is 022-24324161/62, in Delhi one has to dial 011-45628200.

Revathi trains women taxi drivers in driving, etiquette, conversation skills and martial arts before assigning them to the fleet.

‘I created a business model that could sustain itself. I approached almost each and every bank, but they refused me. It was like killing an entrepreneur’s idea,’ she said.

‘The irony is that the micro-credit movement carried my drivers to fame and made them commercially viable. But that very institution shut its doors on me later when I needed money to pump into the business. I need money to survive and fend for the family and my crew as well,’ she said.

Revathi plans to meet Reserve Bank of India deputy governor Usha Thorat for funds.

The idea behind the all-women’s taxi service stems from Revathi’s love for driving. ‘I have been driving all my life…This was the only thing I could do to earn a living,’ she said.

Revathi’s husband died in July 2006 after a brief illness. ‘I had just planned the outlines of my business. My husband’s death created a void that forced me to pursue it with vigour,’ she said. Her friends also came to her rescue.

‘I plan to reach out to 100,000 women drivers and commuters in three years,’ Revathi told IANS.

The idea was sown on a December night in 2006 outside Mumbai’s Mahalakshmi station after Revathi was ‘put off by the irresponsible driving of local taxi drivers’.

‘I thought of an exclusive taxi service for women and by women. The idea stayed,’ she said.

Revathi’ taxi service was inspired by Dubai’s ‘Women Taxi’, Britain’s ‘Pink Ladies’ and Moscow’s ‘Pink Taxis’.

‘The only men allowed inside a Forsche are boys under 12 years!’ she said.

(Madhushree Chatterjee can be contacted at madhu.c@ians.in)

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