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Safer public transport for women needs imaginative planning and innovation

When designing public transport, approaches to it and waiting areas, it makes sense to involve gender experts. The solutions could be as simple as a well-lit road to a well-lit bus stand.

columns Updated: Jul 08, 2017 18:07 IST
Lalita Panicker
Women feel unsafe as cases of stalking and molestations are taking place in markets,  residential areas and bus stops
Women feel unsafe as cases of stalking and molestations are taking place in markets, residential areas and bus stops (Burhaan Kinu/HT)

It is a story we hear very often – a woman on her way to work or on an outing uses some or other form of public transport only to face harassment, even rape. It could be a rogue cab, auto or bus driver. It could be passengers in public transport, it could be thugs waiting on roads as a woman goes by to secure public transport or waits for one to come by. This was driven home in a most terrifying manner in 2012 when Jyoti Singh, a young paramedic, unwittingly boarded what she thought was a city bus on what would be the last journey of her life. What happened to her on that bus where savages inflicted the worst sort of violence on her should have been a wake-up call for the authorities to provide easily available and safe public transport for women.

Most women have faced some form of harassment in public transport. And this has increased over the years as more women have stepped out of their homes to work and have no recourse but to take public transport. In a wonderfully comprehensive draft on women and urban transport, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and Safetypin have gone into this issue at length, coming up with sensible recommendations which if they see the light of day could transform women’s lives in urban spaces.

Let us take Kerala, supposedly enlightened and educated. A study by Sakhi in 2010 quoted in the draft shows that in Kozhikode, 71% women faced harassment while waiting for public transport while a whopping 69% faced it while using public transport. We only sit up and take notice when this harassment spills over into actual violence like rape. The daily stress and harassment that women in public transport face has become normal now, something we disapprove of but something no one sees fit to tackle. So conditioned are women to avoid a public scene that instinctively they will try and move away or efface themselves as much as possible in order to avoid a confrontation. And with good reason, because the public rarely comes to their rescue.

Harassment is thrown into the bucket of other complaints by the authorities who seem to have neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to deal with the seriousness of the problem. Much-hyped helplines are launched with fanfare, but they tend to fall between the cracks thanks to poor implementation. Many women don’t even know about helplines even where they are available. CCTVs too have done little to reduce harassment despite a huge amount of money being spent on this.

We hear of zero-tolerance in many spheres of public life, particularly corruption. It is quite a favourite with our politicians because it has such a final and muscular ring to it. As the draft shows, it can be used with good effect when it comes to women’s safety in public transport. The Edmonton Transit Service in Canada, a country which undoubtedly has the benefit of a gender sensitive prime minister, devised posters and ads to tell people how to report harassment. Women should be encouraged to join the public transport companies in greater numbers. In Bengaluru, the Metropolitan Transport Corporation created a Women’s Safety Committee which comprised the security and vigilance department, police, traffic police, commuters’ association and other civil society bodies. The goal was to create a protocol to deal with sexual harassment in public transport and infrastructure, according to the draft.

When designing public transport, approaches to it and waiting areas, it makes sense to involve gender experts. The solutions could be as simple as a well-lit road to a well-lit bus stand. It could be as simple as more women constables on railway platforms. Or gender-sensitised taxi and bus drivers.

Women only vehicles have been tried and though they seem an attractive option, they are not economically feasible. As an experiment with pink autos in Gurgaon showed, there were not enough vehicles or drivers and so the scheme did not take off. But, for the economy to grow, we need women’s participation and for this we need safe public transport. This is something our city planners and the urban development ministry need to really focus on. Women’s concerns have to be a part of city planning, not an afterthought. In urban India, only 15.5% of the workforce is women. If they were assured safe passage to work, I do think this figure could double. But this requires imagination and innovation on the part of planners and the government, something in short supply these days.

lalita.panicker@hindustantimes.com