This is a reprint of my article at the Save Kerala blog – http://savekerala.blogspot.com

Latha looked at her watch. She was going to be late to work. Gritting her teeth at the thought of another long night at the office, she grabbed her iPod and stuffed it into her bag. As she ran out, Latha grabbed the tiffin box located strategically on the dining table and yelled in the kitchen’s direction,

“Amma…njaan erangunu.” (Mother, I’m leaving)
Pat came her mother’s advice, “Poyitte varette paraaa, molle.” (Say you’ll return after leaving)

At the bus stand, Latha did not have to wait for long. A SAFE bus rolled in, its engine purring to a halt. The driver extended its wheelchair lift to let out a disabled lady and her companion granddaughter. The rest of the passengers petered out of the bus before Latha stepped into its cool interior. This particular bus was operated by Safe and Friendly Environment Lines, the brainchild of Abdul Majeeb, a recently returned Kerala expat. Latha had read all about him in a splashy feature story in “Dusky” – a hugely successful periodical in Kerala.

Six years ago, Majeeb had traveled to Masdar to embark on a venture manufacturing luxury boats and yachts for the city’s wealthy businessmen and had amassed significant wealth for himself in the process. Yet, as he traveled between Kerala and Masdar, he was continually reminded of the world of difference between his place of birth and place of work. And nothing irked him more than the harassment women received in urban Kerala. At times, he suspected that beneath a largely literate society, lay a seething, frustrated, unemployed body of men who had nothing better to do than harass women on the streets and in every imaginable public place. Majeeb got so obsessed with the problem that whenever he met a fellow Keralite, he steered the conversation in this direction. Yet everyone, men and women, friends and family alike, just shrugged their shoulders and walked away. Then last year, the problem hit home when his sister was pinched and groped on a private bus. Shortly after that incident, he bought her a can of mace and then isolated himself in his office to apply his entrepreneurial instincts to the problem.

For decades, private and public bus lines were unable to provide safe and secure means of transportation for women and children. Surveys revealed the shocking extent of women who had some experience fending off physical advances while traveling. The numbers were lower, but still disturbingly bad for children, primarily because child molestation went largely unreported. It was a problem that left women and children scarred, and in many cases, families reluctant to let their vulnerable members venture outside for work. On the rare occasions that a woman or child complained, retribution was often swift, but the reaction too little too late. Years of building boats and arranging security for celebrity clients at his yacht exhibitions had given Majeeb considerable experience in the tourism and security industries. In his mind, the problems presented by public travel in Kerala were no different. And that is why Majeeb introduced a private protection bus service catering to men, women and children.

Ten kilometers from Latha’s bus stand, Majeeb sat in his office with his legs stretched on his desk, a liberty he took on Fridays when the week winded down to a crawl. Flipping the pages of his investment book, he ran through the calculations for his proposed fleet expansion. SAFE had created a tidy profit for him within two years of its launch; now he was going to expand beyond Kochi into Kozhikode and Kollam. Yet, he knew making his figures public to attract investors, was also going to open the gates to copy-cats once competing bus lines learnt just how well he was doing. But then, Majeeb was no stranger to competition. He thrived on devising innovative services and products to differentiate his business.

Majeeb reminisced about his neighbors in Kerala ridiculing him (not to his face, because that would have been impolite) when he told them about his new bus service and his ticket prices which were twice the prevailing rate. Indians, let alone Malayalees, are driven by cost, they said. Charge twice as much, get twice as less passengers, they warned him. Majeeb shrugged his shoulders just as they had shrugged theirs. If there was anything he had learnt about business, it was that you never learn without trying. So he went ahead with his plans to recruit bus “marshals” – able plainclothesmen who accompanied his buses.

In the first month after the inauguration of the bus service, Majeeb did worry. Attendance was poor, and his advertisements attracted just a trickle of passengers, mostly businessmen. Then as word of mouth spread about Majeeb’s guard service, he started seeing more housewives and working women among the passengers. Pretty soon, the inaugural bus were running at full capacity and bringing in enough money for Majeeb to justify buying a second, a third, a fourth and even a fifth bus.

In the beginning, there was a security guard on every ride. As expectations rose, he dispersed the guards among his buses. With his higher ticket prices, he was able to add more buses to the same routes and restrict the amount of passengers on each ride. Majeeb had long ago reasoned that the shortest distance from point A to point B in Kerala was not just a straight line. It was a line with bells and whistles. He was not interested in selling a commodity. He was not selling space. He was selling a service. He was selling comfort of a watchful pair of eyes. Not the kind of eyes that women were seeking to avoid. But the protective kind his meticulously-selected and screened guards offered.

Yet, Majeeb took pains to draw the fine line between regulating and liberating interaction between strangers. He had no desire to run a police state aboard his buses. He wanted men and women to converse and act decently towards each other. He didn’t want to segregate the two sexes as some clerics and priests in his home town would have liked. Was he in the business of teaching decency? No, he believed such behaviours could not be forced, just internalized.

And what of the criticism leveled at him by a major daily that his rates were beyond the ordinary person’s reach? He wrote an emphatic letter to the editor quoting first hand evidence that his bus was actually more affordable. Despite his relatively expensive bus fare, many of SAFE’s passengers were switching from more expensive means of transportation including two-wheelers. In the cases of women who were confined to their homes, the opportunity cost was much higher. Majeeb’s most cherished possession was a letter from a young lady named Latha, who had written to his office to express her appreciation for his bus lines. Latha was frequently called upon to work for long hours at her office. As such instances grew more frequent, her parents despaired and called upon the daughter to quit. Latha knew she could not heed their warning, which while well-meaning, ignored the hard facts of their circumstances. Her father was confined to the bed after a paralyzing stroke; between his medicines and her mother’s care, she was the sole breadwinner in the family. Any other job would force them to live from hand to mouth. It was in the midst of this crisis, Latha wrote to Majeeb, that SAFE “rolled into her life”.

Majeeb liked to think that SAFE was a social experiment, but he knew that it was a business like any other. It existed to satisfy an unresolved need like any other successful firm. Only time could tell what long-term changes his entrepreneurial abilities could shape. For now though, he would be happy just to provide law and order in the void that was Kerala’s traveling experience.

A knock on the door pierced Majeeb’s thoughts and he sat up. His assistant came into his office and said, “It’s Minister Balakrishnan.”
Majeeb raised his brow, “what does he want?”
“Something about booking a bus for his son’s wedding in June.” After some hesitation, she said, “Oh and Bhaskaran is on the other line.”
Majeeb asked, “Bhaskaran who?”
“Union Bhaskaran…the one who’s in the papers about getting you to sign an agreement for your security staff.”

Majeeb took in a deep breath and weighed which call was worse.

Post-script:

Sexual harassment is a widespread problem in Kerala. Volumes have been written here and elsewhere on the hellish experiences women face while they travel and work in our state. According to the 2007 Kerala Economic Review report released last month, atrocities against women have increased three-fold over the past 15 years. 2,078 cases were recorded against women in 1992. In 2006, this figure had risen to 9,110 cases. Despite greater public awareness, little has been achieved as tangible results. Successive governments have failed to provide us with better law enforcement agencies. But blaming the government for everything from the lack of standards in our civic life to our economic problems is becoming more and more a convenient cop-out.

Latha’s experience and Majeeb’s story need not be relegated to the dusty confines of Indian science-fiction. These are very practical applications of existing business models. A little private initiative and lots of common sense can resolve many of Kerala’s modern social and economic problems without resorting to charitable or publicly-funded institutions including governments. We have all seen how the latter have fared. I’ll let Milton Friedman explain the power of open markets more eloquently, “The great virtue of free enterprise is that it forces existing businesses to meet the test of the market continuously, to produce products that meet consumer demands at lowest cost, or else be driven from the market. It is a profit-and-loss system.”

Note: All characters in this article are fictitious. Any similarities that these characters may have to any person living or dead are unintentional.

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