When Banjeet Kaur, 22, ferried passengers in her auto in Jammu’s Udhampur district for the first time in May 2020, she was met with astonished glares. “No one passed any crude comment or remark but that surprised look in their face spoke louder. They were shocked to see a young girl driving an auto. Many passengers even appreciated me,” Kaur told NewsClick.
The first female auto driver from Jammu and Kashmir, Kaur, started driving an auto after the COVID-19 induced lockdown wreaked financial havoc in her family. Reportedly, with the closure of schools due to COVID-19, her father lost his job as a school bus driver and they were left with frugal savings to support the family. That is when Kaur decided that she will take the charge and become the bread-winner of her family.
“The decision was difficult as I wanted to focus on my studies, but I had no other choice left. It had become difficult to make two ends meet. There was nothing to eat. But my father supported me and stood by me like a pillar,” she told NewsClick.
But this is not the first time, Kaur is driving an auto. A year and a half ago, when Kaur’s father Sardar Gorakh Singh had a pancreatic attack in the middle of the night, it was she who drove him to the nearby hospital. Father to four daughters, Singh said that the incident changed something in him.
“I was not even able to stand straight because of the pain. It was in the middle of the night. That incident made me realise that we have been giving unnecessary importance to sons when daughters/women are capable of doing more than what we men can do,” Singh added.
Kaur said that the incident boosted her confidence and she knew that she can drive well. From the money that she got through driving, the first thing she did was to buy ration and other basic household necessities.
“There is no fixed salary in auto driving, you get the money on day to day basis and utilise it accordingly. I made roughly around Rs 6,000 and that was used to buy ration for the next month. I was really proud of myself,” she said.
But this journey wasn’t as rosy as it seems. It was very hard for the young 22-year-old girl, who is a second-year Masters student, to strike a balance between her driving job and studies. “It was hard initially but with support of my parents and relatives, I was able to take care of my studies as well. I would study in the night and drive in the morning.”
Kaur’s younger sibling Davinder Kaur, who has also learnt driving, said that she is proud of her sister. “My sister has set an example that women can do anything and we all look up to her,” she said.
Years ago, Singh taught driving to both his daughters but little did he know that this skill which he had passed onto them will save his family during an economic crisis.
“Meine ji shauk shauk mei unko driving seekhayi. Mujhe laga ladki hai, gaadi chalana aani chahye. Mujhe kahan pata tha yeh driving hamare ruke hue ghar ko chala degi (I taught them driving just as a hobby. I thought girls should know how to drive. I didn’t know that driving will help keep our house running during crisis),” he added, insisting that such freedom is must for women.
Now, Kaur along with her father drives through the city meeting surprised faces, wide smiles and confused eyes while shattering the ingrained stereotypes. “It makes me so happy. Girls are no less than boys and we can do anything,” she said with a wide smile on her face.