The State Transport Authority (STA) Odisha directed Road Transport Officers (RTO) across the state to act and issue e-challan against owners/operators of the buses for not allowing women as first passengers.
The directive came on a petition initiated by the author requesting the intervention of Odisha State Commission for Women (OSCW) on the issue. Based on the petition, the Women Commission recommended the STA Odisha take action against the erring operators who discriminate against women on their blind belief/superstition by not allowing them as the first passenger to enter inside the passenger vehicle.
While interaction with participants during the awareness building program on prohibition of witch branding and hunting in different districts of Odisha, it was shared by the women delegates that they are being discriminated and not allowed to be the first passenger of a bus. This is considered as a bad omen. It happens so that when a bus start from the first point, they prefer a male passenger to board first. A woman can only step inside after a male passenger enters the bus. The conductor and driver of the buses who are mostly male having the believe that there is a possibility of mishap or do bad business for the day if a woman is allowed to be the first passenger.
Maa Kali is residing in the bus. There is every possibility that a woman is menstruating. How can we allow a woman in such circumstances – said a driver.
Many of the women attempted to be the first passenger have been treated in an undignified manner by the drivers and conductors and was humiliated. Denying any individual to enter the bus as a passenger just because of her sex / gender is derogatory, irrational, and unwelcome behavior based on gender based discriminatory practice stemmed from the superstition.
Petition to Women commission:
While attending a seminar on the rights of single women as resource person organized by the Odisha State Commission for Women held on 21st June 2023 at Bhubaneswar, I raised this issue before the Chairperson and members of the Odisha State Commission for Women.
The Commission expressed their interest in taking up the issue. In such a context I field a petition before the Chairperson on 28th June asking for issuing necessary instruction to the Commerce and Transport Department, Odisha to ensure non-discriminatory behavior while women are travelling in public transport.
Responding to the petition the OSCW issued an instruction to the Transport Commissioner cum Chairman, State Transport Authority on 25th July 2023 to ensure that buses (both private and government) allow the women as first passenger and ask for a compliance. The State Transport Authority (STA) on 29th July 2023 directed RTOs to act and issue e-challan against owners of such buses for not allowing women as first passengers. The authority clarified that permits are granted to stage carriages on different routes to carry passengers on payment of bus fare as notified by the government from time to time. The owner or conductor of a stage carriage cannot deny entry of women as first passengers in buses. Any deviation shall amount to a violation of permit conditions and is punishable under section 192A of the Motor Vehicle Act, 1988.
Surprisingly, after issuance of the order and an intensive media intervention, the bus owners and their staff have responded positively. There were instances of women raising their voice and assert their rights to be the first passenger, bus owner association issued circulars to their members not to discriminate and allow women as first passenger, special announcement made at bus stands against such practices, bus staff suo motu invited women to express their solidarity.
However, there are still lots of challenges to make this change sustain. Strong enforcement of the order along with activities for socio-behavioural change of the stakeholders is the emerging need now.
(Ghasiram Panda is the National Program Manager for the Ending Child Marriage Programme of Action Aid India. Views are personal)