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Verve People
December 27, 2016

Meet The Woman Who Leads The New York Taxi Workers Alliance

Text by Huzan Tata. Photograph by Divya Mahindra

Bhairavi Desai talks about what gives her the strength to soldier on

She doesn’t drive taxis, nor does she have a driver’s licence. But that doesn’t stop the 44-year-old from making sure that New Yorkers behind the wheels of yellow cabs get to live and drive with dignity. Bhairavi Desai, whose family moved from Gujarat to USA when she was six, has spent the better part of her life fighting for the rights of taxi drivers in the Big Apple through the New York Taxi Workers Alliance (NYTWA) which she helped found in 1998.

“I had been hired by a pan-Asian community organisation in 1996 to work on a project with taxi drivers. Every driver I met, though, wanted to build a union. We started with no members and today, we stand tall with over 19,000 in New York City and are a national organisation with presence in the six sister cities,” says the Rutgers University graduate. And though it involves a great deal of struggle, her goals for her cause are simple. “To win justice, rights, respect and dignity through full unionisation of all 1,00,000 licenced taxi workers in New York City.”

Her passion is evident, and this, she says, is inherited from her parents and two older brothers. “All four of them raised me to believe in myself, in equity, and the fact that one’s life served a purpose greater than wealth and power. I was so loved. I couldn’t help but love the world in return.” Desai moved from her first American home in North Carolina to New Jersey when she was eight. She grew up watching baseball (“the Mets, not just any baseball team”), playing arcade games, discussing Marx, Nietzsche and Shammi Kapoor with her father (“He was the Indian Elvis!”), and eating her mother’s khari and dal dhokli. The Bronx-based activist says, “Every day I witnessed India through my father’s stories, my mother’s teachings, the sounds of the Gujarati language and bangles that permeated our walls, and in the aromas of my mother’s spices. For me, India means rebellion, humanism and pluralism. My Indianness survived 200 years of colonial rule and generations of patriarchy.”

Though her daily timetable includes media interactions, meetings with officials, strategy sessions and discussions with colleagues, Desai wishes everyday could be spent out in the field, interacting with drivers. But being a woman in a male-dominated field can’t be without its challenges. “I’ve had to work harder to prove my intellect, my stamina and my right to change the world…. Drivers have raised me as much as my family. They believed in me, and saw abilities I never saw and still struggle to see. I never want to fail them. And that gets me through those challenging moments,” explains the born fighter.

A recipient of the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World award, Desai has also been on the executive council of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), USA’s largest federation of unions. But, she says, these achievements are not singularly hers. “In the world of social change, anyone who tells you they have achieved something on their own has not confronted real power…. There is no glamour in fighting oppression, but there is a sense of nobility which makes every day, whether you win or lose, feel like an achievement, because people like us aren’t supposed to have it easy.” The triumphs of NYTWA — winning raises that give drivers a decent income and the creation of a Taxi Driver Protection Act among them — and the losses that they bear as a team really matter to her.

With advancing technologies and the advent of services like Uber, the NYTWA is faced with new issues, but it’s what keeps the fire alive. Desai’s mother taught her that a woman’s strength comes from being gentle no matter what the situation, and she carries that thought with her to this day. “We cannot build a world made closer through technology only to be driven farther apart by militarism, religious fundamentalism and predatory capitalism.” Still craving her mother’s idli-sambar on every birthday and preferring her salwar kameezes over jeans, Desai believes that her political leanings, disdain for oppression and sense of third world feminism are all shaped by her Indian genes.

And her wheels are constantly turning, even when she’s not at work. A woman who has never cowered while fighting for her cause, Desai hopes that the NYTWA’s campaigns for policy changes to protect jobs are fruitful. We ask her what she’d say to those who want to follow in her footsteps and work for a social cause. “Rise. Wait for no one to call out your name, seek no permission. We are duty-bound to make the world better.”

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