Kochi: Down on the platform, where the air is intensely muggy in the March heat, a train glides in. The driver is a woman.
The ticket office is run by a woman. A transgender woman helps customers at the inquiry desk. On four of the metro’s stations, passengers can go into a special cubicle to breastfeed their babies.
At the station, Rejitha, dressed in a turquoise and pink uniform, is on hand to help the hundreds of people who use the Kochi Metro every day. “See, you place it flat like this on the sensor to get through,” she tells a customer struggling to get through the ticket barrier.
The state has a high female literacy rate, low maternal and infant mortality, and a healthy sex ratio compared with other Indian states.
An army of women make up about 80 per cent of the 1,300-strong metro workforce.
From cleaning posts to senior management roles — aside from the managing director, who is a man — this is an operation conceived to give women more job opportunities.
“It’s a safe and clean environment for me. The money I get makes a big difference to our budget and to what I can do for my family,” says Rejitha, who goes by a single name.
The predominance of women explains the decision to install the breastfeeding pods, equipped with a seat, fan, and phone charging point. The pods are located in parts of stations that can be accessed without a ticket so that any passing woman who needs it can walk in off the street and use it.
“We realised that breastfeeding rates were coming down in Kerala and wondered if we could help. If demand goes up, we will install more of them,” says Sumi Nadarajan, senior deputy general manager for planning and sustainability.
■ Seven out of the 39 drivers are women, and 60 transgender women have been hired.
■ Kudumbhashree members make, distribute lunches for Kochi Metro staff.
■ Breastfeeding pods equipped with a seat, fan, and phone charging point are located in parts of stations.
■ The metro uses solar power for 35% of its energy needs, and more than 200 of the pillars have been turned into vertical gardens.
This sensitivity typifies many of the state-owned metro’s policies. It was an unusual infrastructure project from the outset. In a country where projects routinely run over budget and break deadlines, the metro was completed within the agreed cost and time constraints. It uses solar power for 35% of its energy needs, and more than 200 of the pillars dotted around the station have been turned into vertical gardens with the use of compost made from municipal waste.
One key decision was to train and appoint female drivers: seven out of the 39 drivers are women. Another was hiring 60 transgender women, the first time any company in India has formally decided to hire along such lines. As former metro managing director Elias George said at the time, “society’s mindset will change only by direct interaction with” transgender people.
In a move to give further jobs to women, the metro joined up with a women’s collective called Kudumbashree to supply meals. Women cook lunches in their homes and, travelling on the metro, deliver the meals in steel “tiffin” boxes (to avoid plastic) to metro employees at various stations. They earn money and metro employees enjoy home-cooked food.
“From day one, we believed the policies that shape this institution must be progressive and innovative and aimed at social inclusion and women’s empowerment,” says Kochi Metro managing director Mohammed Hanish.
Bringing Kerala’s transgender people into the public eye has not been easy. Unlike in other parts of India, transgender people here live hidden away. “In north India, transgenders live in communities called hamams but in Kerala they are solitary and isolated,” says Sumi Mohan, board member of human rights organisation Sahayatrika.
The attrition rate among transgender employees has been high. Finding affordable accommodation near the station where they work was a problem for many. “It was a challenge keeping them employed. Many took lots of medical leave. They need surgery or they have issues with their hormone treatment. And they wanted a daily wage. They live from hand to mouth and can’t wait for a month before being paid. But we couldn’t change the rules for just one section of employees,” says Natarajan.
As a result, only a dozen remain. One of them is Karthika Raghavan, 36, who gave up her job as a biochemist in a laboratory, because it was too solitary, to work as a customer assistant on the metro. Raghavan’s parents accepted her and she continues to live with them, something of a rarity among transgender people in Kerala.
“My job in the lab was with non-living things. Being out and meeting all kinds of people on the metro makes me feel happy,” she says in fluent English. “Whenever I used to look for jobs, the ad specified male or female. The Kochi Metro has smashed all the old rules by giving us work.”
Raghavan also has no problem with shift work. “I want to be trained as a driver. That’s the next logical step and that’s my new ambition,” she says.
The metro’s policies stem from a wider progressive ethos that is perhaps unique to Kerala. Although the state has been in the news recently for the campaign by women to win the right to pray at the Sabarimala temple, where women have been denied entry for decades, this is something of an aberration. The state has a high female literacy rate, low maternal and infant mortality, and a healthy sex ratio compared with other Indian states.
Nevertheless, few women, despite being educated, feature in the labour force. According to the latest official data for 2011-12, 22% of women work in the formal sector in rural areas, compared with 56% of men, lower than the 25% figure for India as a whole.
This is why the Kochi Metro made a conscious effort to give jobs to women. There has been no shortage of takers. Women even work the night shift, which is notable in a society where you rarely see women out after sunset in rural areas.
Hima C, as she is known, is a 27-year-old driver — an assistant “loco-pilot”, as it is called. The shifts don’t bother her because she loves her job. “The metro is elevated, so it soars over the city. I love that sense of space — and the way people on the platform, when they see the train rolling in, smile and wave at me,” she says.