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We must reclaim our public spaces

ht-view Updated: Feb 16, 2014 23:51 IST
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Indian cities are increasingly becoming unsafe for women. According to the 2012 National Crime Records Bureau, Delhi witnessed more rapes than the next five metros (Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore) put together. Cities once considered safe, such as Mumbai and Chennai, are also recording a rise in sexual assault and harassment cases. The usual response to such crimes is increased police surveillance, CCTVs and helplines. But I think we are missing the woods for the trees.

“Increased surveillance is not the solution. We need eyes on the street,” claims Zohra Momin, a Mumbai-based urban planner. By eyes-on-the-street she means people watching over their neighbourhoods. Momin grew up in Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar, where Dawood once stayed. However, she felt safer there than in Byculla, where she later shifted, because the former had “more eyes on the street”. Experts claim that poor urban designs discourage the system Momin talks about.

Anirudh Paul, director of Mumbai-based Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture, divides urban environments into two categories — gated colonies or barrier-less communities allowing for activities that spill into public spaces. Whereas the former creates a distinction between the rich and the poor, making people turn their back towards the street; the latter allows spaces to be observed by more people and creates safer areas for women. Urban planners assert that mixed-use areas are safer than those demarcated in strict zones. For instance, it is said that Mumbai never goes to sleep. This is because the city follows mixed use, hence there is always some activity on the street. In contrast, Delhi is divided into residential, commercial and recreational zones, making it more unsafe. So while Connaught Place, a business district, empties out after a certain time of the day, Laxmi Nagar is alive even at midnight because of the mixed use settlements there. Planning cities for private cars and not pedestrians is also a reason for the rise in crime against women. Safe cities require increased pedestrianisation by creating broad, well-lit footpaths and providing good walking infrastructure.

In 2010, New Delhi-based non-profit, Jagori carried out a study and found three out of every five women faced sexual harassment not only after dark but also during the day. Poor infrastructure, unusable pavements, and lack of public toilets were found to be major reasons behind the lack of safety. A Mumbai-based NGO, Akshara’s recent survey showed 47% of women felt unsafe in public places.

We must reclaim and redesign our public spaces. For instance, while there are guidelines to design public parks — no concrete boundary walls, height of the foliage, number and location of the benches, etc – so as to encourage women and young girls to use them for recreation — these remain only on paper. Interestingly, street vendors, often blamed for chaos and encroachment, are a part of the solution. Hawkers are important for vibrancy and safety of the city. Through urban design these vendors can be legally accommodated under deserted flyovers or along the lonely stretch of broad roads.

More than a year ago, the Unified Traffic and Transportation Infrastructure under the Delhi Development Authority used a variety of site-specific urban designs to prepare a draft for action points on women’s safety. This draft was accepted by the Centre, but remains in cold storage. The AAP government of Delhi had shown interest in these urban design projects and was going to launch a few pilot projects in the capital. But that will have to wait for now.

Nidhi Jamwal is a Mumbai-based freelance environment journalist

The views expressed by the author are personal