Seated on the steps of the Open-Air Theatre near Tundikhel, Sumitra Dangal watches as the Safa tempo makes its way around the muddy field. The driver is a young, sari-clad woman who is concentrating hard as she accelerates, brakes and then backs the electricity-powered vehicle between two iron posts. As she makes it past without touching the posts, Dangal nods approvingly and offers a word of praise. "She's a fast learner, considering she's only been at it for a couple of days," says Dangal. "Some of the women who come for lessons take five months or more."
Dangal is Nepal's first woman tempo driver. Having begun operating three-wheelers four years ago, she now runs a school that teaches women how to drive tempos. The 27-year-old law graduate is up every morning to instructing housewives, former teachers and other women from low income households on the intricacies of tempo-driving. "It's not enough being a skilled driver. You need plenty of guts, attitude, and people skills," says Milan Shrestha, one of two dozen women tempo drivers who were taught by Dangal. "Avoiding potholes and manoeuvring a tempo over uneven roads is one thing, dealing with bossy traffic cops, angry passengers and working late shifts is something else," says Shrestha. However, her no-nonsense and forthright attitude, learnt from her mentor Dangal, is effective in deterring those who try to make trouble for her. The 29-year-old has become used to the curious stares of passengers and passers-by, for whom a woman at the wheel of a public vehicle is still a novelty.
The thought, however, did not deter Lalita Balami from signing up for classes at Dangal's school. The former Kathmandu housewife was inspired after observing a driving training session, while visiting the city hospital across the road from the driving school. "Once I become a proficient driver, I hope to obtain a licence and start driving on the passenger routes," says Balami, who managed to convince her husband and in-laws that the extra income could help the family.
A tempo driver can earn between Rs 3,500 to 4,500 rupees a month. In a good month, a driver can make as much as 10,000 rupees. The driving classes themselves were initially free. Today, Dangal charges Rs 5,000 from those who can afford to pay. The money is used to repay a Rs 600,000 bank loan she took to buy her training tempo and meet its servicing and maintenance costs. "When I first started out, I had to look for candidates, I had to coax and cajole women to join," says Dangal, who invested Rs 15,000 borrowed from wellwishers and friends in driving lessons for herself. Her efforts appear to have paid off. More and more women, literate and semi-literate are coming to her to be trained. They have either heard of Dangal's school from acquaintances or called after noting down the telephone contact number painted on the back of her training tempo. The women share a common goal-to make tempo driving an acceptable and paying profession for women. To some extent that has already happened. Take the case of Anita Shrestha, a mother of two, who was encouraged to join by her husband. She hopes to complete her lessons in a month, get her licence and begin plying passenger routes in three months.
Dangal aims to form a women transport workers' organisation before the end of the year. She hopes to concentrate women tempo drivers on one route. "At present we're spread over the city. If we're organised on one route, it'll be safer, we'll have a stronger voice, and above all we'll be visible," says she. A former student union leader, Dangal knows how effective organising can be. Thanks to her, Kathmandu may soon become famous not only for its electric tempos, but also for the women who drive them.