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POST TIME: 6 July, 2018 00:00 00 AM
Women-only Bus Services
by Maria Mohsin

Women-only Bus Services

“When I got on for the first time, it felt like a woman’s world to me. It felt like we, women, were given a corner to be ourselves, without any hesitation, concern or fear.” Thus, Nowshin Tabassum described her experience of riding on a women-only bus from Motijheel to Farmgate in the capital recently.

The special bus service for women, named Dolonchapa, is the latest initiative to ensure women in the city have a safe and harassment-free bus ride. The service, launched on June 3, is designed by women, for women. It has even been named after a fragrant flower _ dolonchapa, Bangla for white ginger lily _ to appeal to women. At present, only two buses are running on two routes _ one from Mirpur 12 to Motijheel (via Farmgate, Shahbagh and Gulistan) and another from Mirpur Circle (10) to Azimpur. The service is available from 7am to 9pm daily, and the timing has been decided to best serve working women of the city.

Tabassum, who works as a cashier in a private bank, continued: “It’s been almost a week since I have been using this special service regularly, or rather, I have been trying to use it regularly as there in only one bus on my route and I have to wait long for it. Sometimes, I have to catch a normal public bus while going to the office to be on time. But while returning home from work, now I always wait for Dolonchapa as it makes me feel very safe when travelling, especially in the evening.”   

Each air-conditioned Dolonchapa bus has 36 seats, including two seats reserved for passengers with disabilities. The buses are equipped with video cameras, tracking devices and first-aid boxes. The vehicles are especially designed to protect women from any kind of harassment while taking public transport. That’s why the bus conductor is a woman, and while the vehicle is still driven by a man, the driver’s seating area is separated by a partition.

Dolonchapa is a joint venture of Rangs Group and Volvo Eicher Commercial Vehicles (VECV). This women-only bus service was the brainchild of Sohana Rouf Chowdhury, managing director of Rangs Motors.

“It has been 15 years since I have been working in the bus-and-truck business. The transport industry is mostly led by men, so being a woman in this sector, gives me an additional responsibility to create avenues for women to expand their roles in society, and that sense of responsibility encouraged me to take the initiative to launch Dolonchapa. Having pushed for this for the past couple of years or so, it is really overwhelming to see the response.”

The hotline of Dolonchapa receives hundreds of calls every day from women, who leave messages of appreciation as well as requests for expanding the service to more areas _ which has pushed the company to speed up the deployment of more buses and introduce new routes at the earliest possible time.

“We took a lot of time to design the bus and we are still working on improving the design for the next buses. Right now, we have permission for 60 buses on two routes only, but we are working on getting permission for other routes across the city. By the end of the year, we are planning to press into service at least 10 new buses to cover different routes. And soon, we want to spread the service outside Dhaka, too,” Sohana Chowdhury said. “We have kept the ticket price as per set regulations and we want to launch our buses one by one so we can improve our service gradually, instead of rushing in with unforeseen consequences.”

Shamita Tabassum, project manager of Dolonchapa, told The Weekend Independent:  “One year back, when I started working on this project and was doing field survey to find out how people would response to such a service, we didn’t realise it would be such a big deal. We initially started the service as a CSR (corporate social responsibility) project, as we were not getting good response or appreciation while designing it. But now, Dolonchapa is no longer a bus for us. It has become a hope for women in the city. We get hundreds of calls and messages of appreciation every day. We constantly get requests to open routes in other places.”

“We have been working on this for the past two years. Dolonchapa is a result of a lot of thought and hard work. I think the biggest thing that helped us achieve it, both on the part of Rangs Motors and Eicher, was that we never thought of the project as a money-making venture, we just thought about the needs of women commuters and the benefits such a service could bring to society at large. I think when we have partnerships based on respect and good-will towards society, anything is possible. SS Gill, senior vice president and head of international business of VECV, was extremely supportive, and it has been a pleasure to have them as our partner in this initiative,” Sohana Chowdhury, who is also a director of Rangs Group, added.

As the aim was to create a public bus service where women would feel comfortable and safe at any time of day, the company tried to make the vehicles as women-friendly as possible.

Tajrin Jahan, who is also involved in the project, said: “The buses are ‘harassment proof’. The seats are design to be safe and comfortable. The windows are darkly tinted, so no one can see who is travelling inside. There is a first-aid box, with essential items for women. The CCTV cameras on board are monitored continuously, so that there is no violation of our safety policies. The tracking device lets us know where the bus is in real time, and we will know immediately if there is any change in route during a trip. The ‘helper’ (conductor) of the bus is a woman and the driver’s sitting area is designed in such a way that he is completely separated from the passengers. There are also reserved seats for people with disabilities, and we have installed an adjustable ramp to help them get on and off the bus easily.”

“Though the bus timing was fixed for 7am to 7pm every day, we are now running the service as late as 9:30pm to 10pm to serve the passengers. We know there is a problem of bus stops and finding a seat, as there are only two buses now. So we are trying to develop an app for the service so women can track the bus from their mobile phones and even book tickets through the app,” Jahan added.

State-owned Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation (BRTC) launched a similar women-only bus service, where the conductors are also women, in 2014 with 17 buses, including seven double-deckers. The service covers 13 different routes in the city, and runs during peak hours, between 7am to 5pm. The service is also available in Savar, Gazipur and Chittagong (Chattagram). However, women commuters often complain about the buses not arriving on time, while male passengers are sometimes seen travelling on the special buses.

“There are 17 BRTC buses for women in Dhaka, Savar, Gazipur and Chittagong area and they are providing service regularly,” said Kazi Nasirul Haque, deputy general manager, BRTC. “But sometimes, people may not recognise the buses as women-only service and so they might hop on. As the buses are not supervised internally, the staff might take advantage of not having enough female passengers on certain routes and thus, give the seats to male passengers. But if we receive any complaints, we will take action immediately,” he added.  

Though special bus services for women have been introduced in the city, they are not enough and most days, girls and women who are waiting to get a ride are left disappointed and have to travel on regular buses to get to work or classes on time. And despite transport laws requiring public buses to reserve 9 to 12 seats for women, children and the disabled, the assigned seats are often occupied by men who refuse to budge.   

Describing her travel experience, Nafesa Shikder, a student at a private university, said: “My home is in Old Dhaka and my college was at Farmgate. I had to travel by bus every day. Then, one day, I heard BRTC was launching a school bus service and a special service for women. I was so happy, thinking I could travel more comfortably. In the first week, I had to wait long for the women-only or the school bus service to come. Later, it became so time-consuming to wait for the special buses, and after a point, it even got difficult to tell which buses were for women only as I could see male passengers on every single of them. So after a time, I just started hopping on whatever bus came first. Now, my university is also at Farmgate. I still take the regular bus service, without waiting for women-only buses. But the situation is worse; I don’t think anyone can even identify which buses are for women and which are not,” she added.  

When this correspondent told her about the new women-only service, the student replied: ked about women only bus she said, “Yes, I have heard of Dolonchapa and I am going to try it. Hopefully, it will serve better.”

As to maintaining service standards, Shamita Tabassum, the project manager of Dolonchapa, said: “We can assure that the quality and standard of Dolonchapa is service will be well maintained. Lots of people, especially many women, are being employed in this project.”  

“We centrally control the standard of the service. We want Dolonchapa to be a ‘standard’ to follow. We will make sure it stays like that and gradually, we hope all the buses in the city will adopt our technique as a role model to serve the people,” added Sohana Chowdhury. “It is heartwarming to know that dreams do come true if you put your heart into it. It took time, but we finally did it. I am now more determined to expand this service to make some real impact on women-friendly commute throughout the whole country. And we hope to see more such initiatives.”  

Women cannot stay at home like in the old days anymore; they need to go out to lead their own lives. Female employment in Bangladesh increased by 35 percent, reaching 18.1 million, from 2008 to 2017, while male employment saw an 11 percent increase only during the period, according to ‘World Employment and Social Outlook: Trends 2018’, a report prepared by International Labour Organisation. Thus, as more and more women in this country are joining the workforce and contributing to the state coffers, it is imperative to provide safe, convenient transport facilities to ease their journey. Both state and private sectors are well on their way to doing just that. n

Photos: Courtesy, File.