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Working life: Laxmi Maharja, tempo driver, Kathmandu

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Page context: Home > Transport International Magazine > Issue 20 July 2005 > Working life

Interview by Sangam Tripathy

Some months after our interview, Laxmi Maharja was one of 50 women tempo drivers invited to represent the Nepal Transport Workers’ Union (Netwon) at celebrations planned for international women’s day in March 2005. Following the royal coup in the country in February (see news, page 5) and the issuing of directives by the new regime, the union had to seek permission from the police to hold the celebrations and rally.Permission was granted, but then withdrawn late in the evening before Women’s Day on 8 March – just one symbol of the crackdown on trade union rights which has followed the suspension of democracy in Nepal.

Everyday working life however, must continue as normal.Bir Hospital in downtown Kathmandu is a busy square. The bustle starts very early in the morning. At one corner of the square is a public transport stand where you see a long queue of passenger tempos, drivers shouting at high pitch to attract passengers and asking them to fill up quickly.

What’s particularly noticeable about this transport stand is that many of the tempo drivers are women. We greet Laxmi Maharja, and board her tempo, which plies Route No. 14. “We are 75 women drivers in all, of which 18 drive on this route,” Laxmi informs us.

“Safa tempo” (clean fuel tempo) as they are called, are battery-operated three wheeler carriages which were introduced in Kathmandu valley some five years ago. This was after diesel fuelled vehicles had raised pollution levels to alarming levels.

Honking her way through the streets, Laxmi tells us that her day starts at 05:00. She cleans the house, washes the clothes and cooks for her two kids and husband before she is at the tempo stand by 06:30.

Making ends meet

A passenger asks her to slow down at the next corner. When the vehicle stops he hands her a 1000 rupee note, expecting change for a 10 rupee trip. Laxmi tries to reason with the man, and later complains of passengers who hand out soiled and torn notes saying she can always pass them on.

“When there is an argument the first thing such people will ask is, why don’t these women sit at home and cook, why are they competing with men?” Raising her voice Laxmi says she never misses an opportunity to give a terse reply to such men.

The maximum carrying capacity in a tempo is 11 passengers. “But our male counterparts overload to earn extra bucks,” says Laxmi. Each driver has to pay the contractor Rs. 1200 (US$ 16.7) at the end of the day. “On most days I am left with Rs150-200 (US$2 to 2.7). The contractor also pays us a fixed salary of Rs4000 (US$55.55) per month.”

These contractors, known as “charging”, are people who run the business of charging the tempo batteries. In addition each of them takes a contract to run 25 to 40 tempos for different owners. They hire the drivers, men and women, who seldom know who the real owners of their vehicles are.

As the tempo stops at a red signal, two passengers prepare to alight.

“Please don’t get down here, or the cop will ask for my licence,” pleads Laxmi. She explains that she often loses up to Rs 50-100 to a traffic policeman, who blames the driver for allowing passengers to get down at traffic signals.

Future hopes

By the time Laxmi is through gets home it’s almost 20:00. She then cooks for the family and washes the children’s school uniform for the next day. Dinner time is 9.30pm. Finally, she listens to the radio. “This one hour or so is my personal time. I relax and think about life and the future of my family,” she says, with her eyes smiling.

Not long before the coup, the union organised two successful one-day trade union awareness programmes for some 40 women tempo drivers in Kathmandu, and was hopeful of getting all of them to join. Meantime it was planning to arrange a meeting with senior police and traffic department officials to sort out issues such as police harassment and parking. At the time of writing however, there is no knowing when union freedoms will be sufficiently restored to allow such projects to resume.

Laxmi stops her tempo as we near the union office. Before we bid her goodbye, she points to the union banner, which, translates as: “Respect the dignity of Labour”.

“These words are very motivating. I look forward to a day when everybody will start believing them,” she says, before changing gears and zipping away on her journey. She did not know then how poignant her own words would soon become.

Section home:
Issue 20 July 2005

Other pages for Issue 20 July 2005:
Comment: Fighting Back and Winning | ITF launches new global website | Value for money | Protecting our waterfront | The fight for true democracy | Enter the hit squads | This is why we joined a union | Transport goes transnational | From wellhead to wheel | Competition gone mad | Putting the seafarer first | Driving change in Kurdistan | End this railway nightmare | We can help to defeat poverty | Readers’ thoughts on poverty

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