Our cities cannot be called smart until women feel safe | columns | Hindustan Times
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Our cities cannot be called smart until women feel safe

There is no Indian city which provides safe spaces for women in public places. The concept of just being outdoors to enjoy a nice day or just wander about is not something that is available to the majority of women in urban areas.

columns Updated: Jan 15, 2017 00:22 IST
Lalita Panicker
Participants a run to spread awareness on women's safety in Mumbai.  The attitude that a woman or women out on their own are legitimate targets is so ingrained in our society and by extension even in the police.
Participants a run to spread awareness on women's safety in Mumbai. The attitude that a woman or women out on their own are legitimate targets is so ingrained in our society and by extension even in the police. (Pratik Chorge/HT PHOTO)

It doesn’t sound quite so appealing but probably what we need first is safe cities before smart cities. Or better still safety, especially for women, should be top priority in smart cities. This should not be too tough given that technology is to be the bedrock of smart cities and it works well in promoting safety. But I am getting ahead of myself.

There is no Indian city which provides safe spaces for women in public places though many efforts have been made by both the government and NGOs to put in place steps for this. Let’s engage in a bit of what could have been – on that fateful night of December 16, had there been safe public transport, we may never have heard of the woman who was gangraped and murdered and brought a nation onto the streets in grief. Had there been proper street lighting, she might have spotted the fact that the bus she was about to enter was not a commercial bus at all but a private one with only five male passengers. And mind you, Delhi is one of the first five cities which the UN programme `Safe Cities and Safe Public Places’ chose because women were considered so unsafe in it.

There are a number of measures that have been talked about as being enablers of greater safety for women. Among these are CCTVs, panic buttons and GPS tracking. But despite the fact that all these have been implemented partially in some places, women still don’t feel safe. To just stick to Delhi, less than five per cent of women feel that public spaces are safe. From actual molestation and rape to jostling and lewd remarks, going out is a nightmare for most women. The idea of a nice walk on a public promenade unaccompanied is not something any woman in Delhi can conceive of.

Read: Forget Delhi and Bengaluru, which place in India is safe for women?

The Aam Aadmi Party, the aam aadmi also comprising women presumably, has been so busy tilting at windmills most of the time, that its 10-point plan for women’s safety seems to have fallen through the cracks. Emergency connectivity through Wi-Fi with the police was one measure I recall. I wonder what happened to it. I haven’t heard of any woman who managed to get help in time and has a positive story to report on this front.

Then there was Himmat, a safety app for smartphones launched by no less than the Union home minister himself. No much luck there either. Women don’t seem to use these perhaps convinced that it will not save them come the moment they face louts on the streets. The ministry of women and child had decreed at the beginning of last year that every smartphone would be fitted with a panic button. Excellent, but do all women have smartphones?

The main problem as I see it is that despite the presence of CCTVs and other gadgets for women’s safety, the criminals which ooze around on our streets simply don’t seem to fear that they will be caught. They seem quite complacent that they will either not be spotted or that f they are that they will get away with it.

Women are expected to be in public spaces only if there is a particular purpose by and large. They can go to work, study or execute domestic chores like shopping, and that too at designated hours. The concept of just being outdoors to enjoy a nice day or just wander about is not something that is available to the majority of women in urban areas. Women have to be responsible for their own safety at all times, even inside the home. All public spaces belong almost as if by birthright to men. Women are `allowed’ in them at designated times.

Read: Run for women’s safety at Mumbai’s BKC this Saturday night

Technology certainly will help as I said but the certainty and severity of the law ought to be there as well. The attitude that women out on their own are legitimate targets is so ingrained in our society and by extension even in the police. We talk so much about a rights-based plan, an inclusive plan and making cities safe for women. But technology has to be paired with follow up action by the law. If the very basics of even accepting FIRs in time and taking action against stalkers and harassers were prompt, then there is some hope of progress. But what we see today is young men wandering about harassing at will for which they most often get no more than a disapproving cluck.

I do hope that our technology-driven government will think about safe cities a little more forcefully and back it up with good old fashioned policing. There is nothing like the firm smack of the law to dampen the baser instincts in the semi-intelligent criminals whose primary source of enjoyment is harassing women.