If one visits the Pangei Bazaar auto stand in Manipur at present, a rare sight is bound to catch their attention.
A woman in her fifties, dressed in a shirt and trackpants, stands next to her autorickshaw, waiting for passengers to hop in.
Today, Laibi Oinam commands respect wherever she goes, but the situation was very different when she was first spotted in the front seat of an auto, eight years ago.
“People once laughed at me, taunted and called me names. I felt humiliated. But I had little choice,” shares Laibi, who was driven by poverty to become Manipur’s first woman autorickshaw driver.
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Laibi is no stranger to hard labour. A former worker at a brick kiln, she worked day and night for meagre wages that barely managed to make ends meet for her family of four, including two young sons.
Things took a turn for the worse when her husband was diagnosed with severe diabetes and was prescribed complete bed rest.
Thus, Laibi became the sole breadwinner for the family.
Initially, the couple bought a pre-owned auto-rickshaw and decided to rent it out. But, two years and five irresponsible drivers later, their investment was on the verge of failure. Also, Manipur was reeling under an economic blockade around 2011-12 which further complicated the situation.
It was a time of severe distress for Laibi and her family. Her sons had to drop out of school, and on some days, she skipped her meals to feed them.
Desperate and helpless, Laibi took an unprecedented step. She decided to drive the autorickshaw on her own.
In Manipur, women have continually been breaking into male bastions, opting for jobs as labourers, grocers or weavers. But still, a woman auto driver was unheard of. Some of them did not even hesitate to ridicule her with abusive words. Everyone ‘advised’ her to quit this profession and do some ‘womanly’ work.
The traffic police would stop her auto and unnecessarily penalise her. “At one time, when I skipped a signal to get some passengers, they thrashed my auto and in turn hit me as well,” says Laibi.
Things were not so conducive for Laibi at the home front as well. Her sons felt humiliated and resentful of the fact that their mother was an auto driver. Her husband was an alcoholic who often abused and harassed her in a drunken state.
With an indomitable grit, Laibi sailed through everything.
“I had only one vision—to bring up my two sons with proper education,” she says.
Then, a chance encounter with filmmaker Meena Longjam in 2011 that gave Laibi the spotlight she long deserved.
“I met eche Laibi (sister Laibi) rather accidentally. I was standing in the Pangei Bazaar market when I stumbled upon a middle-aged woman in khaki pants and shirt, ferrying an auto full of passengers. Though the place was bustling with people, her demeanour made her stand out,” recounts Meena, in a conversation with The Better India.
Over the next three years, Meena documented snippets of Laibi’s life and compiled all into her documentary ‘Auto Driver,’ which won a National Award in the non-feature category in 2015.
“I am an accidental filmmaker. Laibi has helped me earn this success today,” expresses an emotional Meena, who never misses a chance to hang out with her favourite ‘eche.’
Things changed for the better for Laibi after the documentary created headlines all over the country. As people started recognising and respecting her, her earnings also peaked. She bought a brand new auto for herself and also availed housing loans.
Laibi says, “The people who once taunted and mocked me, now show immense respect and empathy towards me. Even the traffic police greet me with a ‘salaam’ every day. But the best part is that my sons are no longer resentful. They are happy individuals who cannot wait to grow up and start their careers so that their mother can finally retire.”
Interestingly, her elder son is now pursuing his graduation and aspires to be an IAS officer someday, while her younger son has recently joined a prestigious football academy in Chandigarh.
Laibi Oinam is a living inspiration for women across India, and following in her footsteps, Manipur now has three more women auto drivers.
To the readers of The Better India, Laibi earnestly appeals for support for all women like her, who strive hard to earn their daily bread.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)