In July 2005, a 23-year-old pregnant woman with hearing and speech impairment stepped out of her home in the early hours to relieve herself. This was the daily routine for most women in her neighbourhood because the west Delhi slum where she lived had no public toilets. That morning, three men spotted her behind a bush. They dragged her into their van and drove around the city for six hours, raping her. Finally, she was dumped in a garbage pit near her slum.
Two weeks back, a 13-year-old with Down’s Syndrome went to fetch water a kilometre from her home in a slum in southeast Delhi when she was kidnapped. The next morning, she was found by a neighbour — raped, severely injured and left to die by railway tracks.
Eleven years apart, the two cases tell the same story — a failed city system leaving its poor the most vulnerable.
The gang-rape of the physiotherapy student on December 16, 2012, triggered mass outrage nationwide. The government announced legal reforms: stricter penalties, better-defined laws on sexual assaults, fast-tracked trials for all rape cases and fixing police’s responsibility in registration and investigation of such cases. Had these laws been in place, the 2005 rape survivor would not have to shuttle, after her six-hour ordeal, between two police stations fighting over jurisdiction.
Post-2012, our cops usually deal with these cases more sensitively. But is mere registration of cases enough? Judicial remedies or police reforms, though absolutely necessary, are mostly curative, rather than preventive, measures. Gender-based violence, to quote the Justice Verma report on legal reforms, “that cannot be overcome by laws has to be overcome by administration.” We have to also find solutions in the wider matrix of urban development.
Failure of policing is blamed for any meltdown of the rule of law that encourages violent behaviour. But when it comes to gender-based violence and women’s safety, one must also take failure of governance into account. In the absence of public transport, she is forced to take a bus plying without permit and manned by drunkards. In the absence of a toilet or a water tap near her home, she is forced to walk long distances, mostly at odd hours. It is during these journeys that she is so much more vulnerable and is often harassed or attacked, even raped.
Delhi Police’s own data shows that almost 50% of the crimes committed in the capital are in the working class areas, the city’s worst blind spots. It is here that the police presence is patchy, governance weak and civic infrastructure nondescript. If the response of the police and the rest of the administration to middle-class demands are often knee-jerk, one can imagine how the so-called underclass is treated. It is not surprising that their complaints are rarely heard and almost never attended to.
The Delhi Human Development Report on the perception survey conducted in 2013 found that the lack of civic services such as functional street lights and safe public toilets was the biggest concern in the poorer areas of the city. This showed that inadequate attention was paid to gender-sensitive urban planning, contributing to the fear of violence in public spaces among women, particularly those from poorer backgrounds. However, this perception has not always found an echo in the official statistics, the report concluded.
The bulk of necessary preventive measures that make a city safer can be achieved by ensuring that basic civic infrastructure and administration are functional and reliable. How difficult can it be for authorities to ensure that the city is well-lit uniformly and not just in VIP patches and affluent areas? That poorer neighbourhoods have access to potable water and toilets; that walking space is free of encroachments; that public transport is reliable and last-mile connectivity is dependable even during late hours? Much of these are anyway on the AAP government’s five-year agenda.
Preoccupied with their livelihood battles, the working-class women have little time or motivation to organise protest marches demanding safety. But that doesn’t mean they have given up their basic rights. Anyway, safety is not a privilege that this city of rich and powerful can deny its ordinary women.