And the Streets Don’t Change

A year after December 16,how safe is Delhi’s public transport system for women?

Written by Anushree Majumdar | Published: December 15, 2013 5:10 am

It is 8.45 pm at a bus depot in Mehrauli,South Delhi. A couple of street lamps cast a jaundiced glow over the mostly empty parking lot; there are a few buses,and a group of conductors huddle together. The bus stop is a little ahead; a quick look around and there are close to 50 men and one woman. Pushpa is a nurse at the Safdarjung Hospital and is already late for her night shift. She’s never heard of the Ladies’ Special,a bus service launched by the Delhi Transport Corporation in September 2012,exclusively for women commuters,with women conductors,on 11 major routes. “I’m waiting for (bus number) 505. Come with me if you are headed towards New Delhi railway station,” she says. I can feel several pairs of male eyes on me,but Pushpa isn’t worried. “I can’t afford to feel scared. How else will I get to work?” she asks.

It is a year after the brutal gang rape of a 23-year-old student and it is difficult to say if things have changed much on the streets of Delhi. After sundown,the streets belong to men,and women continue to gingerly occupy public spaces such as bus stops and pavements. “Public spaces are overwhelmingly populated by men who are not used to having women roam freely,” says Gayatri Verma,25,senior research associate at the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies,New Delhi. Verma used to take the bus till a few years ago,but now uses the Delhi Metro and rides autos to get to work at Connaught Place. She recalls an incident on a bus where in the crush to disembark,she felt a hand grope her. “Some of my friends have handled this situation better with well-aimed safety pins,” says Verma.

Post December 16,there have been cries to take back the streets. The recent state elections saw all parties address the issue of women’s safety in their manifestos. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate from Mehrauli constituency,Parvesh Sahib Singh,tripped though,when his poster asked,“Why don’t women feel safe on Delhi roads?” and followed it with,“We are the answer!” He won the seat last week.

The government also took some intitatives to make buses safe for women — all buses were to be fitted with a GPS system and home guards deployed in each. Only 1,400 DTC and cluster buses have been fitted with a GPS system as of now; 10,000 school and contract carriage buses don’t have it yet. There were plans to install web cameras inside 200 DTC buses,but not a single one has been installed till date.

The 505 from Mehrauli to Kamla Market has eight men and only one other woman,apart from Pushpa and me,boards the bus. She is on the phone the entire time. The conductor,a young and friendly chap,assures us a safe ride. In their 2010 survey on public safety,Jagori,a Delhi-based NGO,found that “54 per cent of women feel unsafe and vulnerable inside crowded public transport and at bus stops”. The palpable fear one experiences in a bus that is not crowded is ironic then. After Safdarjung Hospital,I am the only woman on the bus till we reach New Delhi railway station.

The entrances to the railway station are shrouded in darkness with only cigarette vendors and street food carts providing a little light. It is 9.45 pm and there are no women. Jagori’s survey notes that around 80 per cent visual harassment,the highest,occurs on the streets and 71.3 per cent around bus stops.

On a bus,the backpack is worn like a breast plate,safety pins and sharp objects are stored in easily accessible flaps; the kitten heel has saved many a woman’s dignity when she has rested her weight on it,after identifying her perpetrator’s feet. Wardrobe is a crucial aspect of riding the bus. In the New Delhi area,around 60 per cent of women prefer not to wear certain kinds of clothes,according to Jagori. “It’s not enough to just blame the men for incidents on the bus,sometimes women are to blame. I cannot even describe what some young women wear in public,” says Pushpa. Deepa,a filmmaker,does not feel unsafe in the new,more transparent green and red buses she takes for meetings from her residence in Kailash Hills to Lodhi Road,but spends time choosing her outfit for the ride. “What I wear when I take autos is very different from what I wear on the bus,” she says.

In this regard,the Metro fares much better. Ever since the service began in 2002,the Metro has been identified as the only “safe” public transport system in the National Capital Region. The presence of CCTV cameras is reassuring (although they have also proven to be a source of mischief) and the platforms are well lit. “If I am travelling alone,I take the Metro. It’s bright and I go in the ladies’ compartment. I take a bus after dark only if my husband is with me,” says Vimla Bika,40,a lower-income professional who works in Lajpat Nagar.

However,the last-mile linkage from the Metro is a big issue for women who are then at the mercy of auto drivers who charge extortionate rates for short distances. For the majority,the only option is the bus. The other snag in the otherwise smooth Metro run is the behaviour of some men after 10 pm. The last train usually runs around 11.30-11.45 pm and some women have experienced a little unease during the ride. “A bunch of men came into the women’s compartment and lay down,they appeared to be drunk. I felt uncomfortable because I was alone and there was nobody to report this to,” says Meghana Acharya,25,a school teacher. “Some men take the liberty of sitting in the women’s compartment on the last train. There should be a constable in the compartment after 9 pm,” says Deepa.

But across the board,women agree that the Metro has facilitated the civilised interaction of men and women,and allowed women to reclaim a semblance of public space. “We are highly sensitive to the issue of women’s safety on the Metro. We carry close to 25 lakh passengers and we monitor the footage of our CCTV cameras,” says Anuj Dayal,chief public relations officer,Delhi Metro. In case of any incident,Dayal urges women passengers to inform the train operators at the next station.

In Munirka village,a stone’s throw away from where the gang-rape victim boarded the bus last year,K Deepa,a librarian at Jamia Millia Islamia,is waiting for students from nearby Jawaharlal Nehru University to light candles tomorrow to mark the incident. “Last year,the marches,the candle-light vigils and the police patrols continued till March. The bus stop is the same,so is the village,and while the number of private buses has gone down significantly,you’ll still see the odd one on the main road,” she says. If it is change you’re looking for,she says,it hasn’t happened yet.

With inputs from Ananya Bhardwaj

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