As I was driving through Delhi last spring, I spotted a rare sight: A woman in a bright white tailored suit driving an auto rickshaw, one of Delhi’s ubiquitous three-wheeler vehicles. I immediately jumped out of my car, ran over to her, and got her phone number. Just a few days later, I spent the day filming Sunita Chaudhary, one of the city’s only female auto rickshaw drivers.55,000 auto rickshaws cruise the city’s crowded streets, and it’s traditionally a man’s job to drive these vehicles. But, Sunita Chaudhary has never been the type to follow traditions.
“I’ve never cared about what society thinks,” she said. “You can’t feed yourself if you follow society.”
Chaudhary’s conservative family didn’t approve of women working outside the home. So, she left her hometown more than a decade ago, and came to Delhi.
“I did not have money or the education to support myself,” she said. “All I had was the strength and determination to do something in life.”
After working odd jobs, she struggled for three years to get an auto rickshaw license, due to the difficult nature of getting a commercial vehicle license.
For years, Chaudhary rented an auto rickshaw for $8 a day, leaving little money leftover for daily spending. “I would sleep in the auto, and get ready and change clothes at the public toilets at the railway station,” she said.
Eventually, she received a government loan to buy her own auto rickshaw, and she paid it back overtime. Several years later, she still hasn’t told her family about her job.
“I eat well, and I can pay off my rent with the money that I earn. I make ends meet,” she said.
Her daily earnings: $10 on average.
Chaudhary says it’s a risky job and she’s also been harassed by the police. But, she’s determined to keep driving. She avoids belligerent passengers and if someone threatens her, she says she acts tough and rude.
“Work is work, and if something bad has to happen, it can happen if you’re sitting at home,” she said.
Over the years, she’s gained supporters and friends in high places, including attorneys who helped her get a license and secure a loan for her auto rickshaw.
Chaudhary also talks openly about her political aspirations. In fact, as I filmed her driving past the Indian Cultural Center in Delhi, a male employee came out of the building to meet us. When Chaudhary started discussing plans to run for office, he said those positions weren’t meant for auto drivers like her, and she should just stay in her place.
She paid no heed to naysayers, and just a few months later, rode up on a horse while wielding a sword to file her nomination papers for India’s vice presidential post. She didn’t win, but she’s not the type to give up.