New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru is a story of two streets. Busy and brightly lit MG Road in the heart of the city, where media reports say several women were groped by an unruly mob, and a deserted lane off 5th Main Road in Kammanahalli, where two men assaulted a woman outside her home.
Both incidents illustrate just how unsafe Indian cities are. But conflating the two — city planners, architects and women’s rights activists say — risks making our public spaces less safe for everyone. “What is safety?” asks Geetha Nambisan, director of Jagori, a women’s rights organisation. “In our surveys, women describe it as the freedom to live a full life unencumbered by fear. The response of officials is the opposite — to push women into their homes.”
Learning the right lessons from Bengaluru’s night of horror, these experts feel, is of particular importance because India is still on the road to urbanisation, and new metropolises like Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh and Naya Raipur in Chhattisgarh should not repeat the mistakes made in cities like New Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.
The MG Road incident
The ‘mass molestations’ on MG Road are a result of a deep-seated misconception that women do not belong in public spaces, says Shilpa Phadke, a sociologist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and co-author of Why Loiter, an inter-disciplinary study on women and public space.
“In our surveys, women cite the presence of other women as the biggest factor when evaluating the safety of a public space,” Phadke says. “Telling women to stay home means a less inclusive city for those who do venture out, triggering a cycle that is hard to break.”
In the past, city administrations have responded to incidents of molestation by further restricting the mobility of women. In March 2012, for instance, Gurgaon police passed an order prohibiting businesses from employing women after 8 pm because a young female employee at a mall had been sexually assaulted.
Phadke believes the spontaneous violence of an unruly mob like the one on MG Road must be weighed against the structural violence of forcing women to give up jobs and leisure by staying home. “My biggest fear is that Bengaluru will respond by shutting shops, pubs and businesses early,” she says, explaining that – despite the attacks on MG Road – busy public spaces tend to be safer than deserted spots. “The longer a city is open, the safer it is for everyone,” she says.
This brings us to Kammanahalli, a once sleepy residential neighbourhood now transformed into a patchwork of restaurants, apartment complexes and bungalows by the city’s IT boom. Here, surveillance footage revealed an incident involving two men assaulting a woman on a deserted lane hemmed in by high fences.
“We have built high walls around residential areas in the name of protection,” says Shilpa Ranade, an architect who collaborated with Phadke on Why Loiter. “But this has turned our streets into unsafe, isolated spaces.”
Architects like Ranade explain that fenced spaces often feel less safe than open areas. “Mumbai’s Shivaji Maidan has no fences or timings, but it is still a safe space that attracts a mixed crowd,” she says. “The Oval Maidan is less welcoming because it is enclosed by a tall fence.”
In 2011, the United Nations launched the Global Public Spaces Programme to address questions on safety and city design. This is what the programme toolkit notes: “A mixed and diverse public space provides a place that’s vibrant and busy, and automatically reduces insecurity.”
Unfortunately, city planning in India has historically segregated urban areas into distinct residential, commercial and recreational zones. “Globally, mixed use areas – like many older Mumbai neighbourhoods – are found to be far safer,” says Ranade. “Segregation means that office blocks, for example, may be safe in the day, but could suddenly become deserted and unsafe after office hours.”
Auditing for safety
In 1982, a spate of crimes against women prompted Toronto in Canada to create the Metropolitan Action Committee on Public Violence against Women and Children (METRAC), which pioneered a system of neighbourhood audits to assess the safety of the city.
“Audits offer a way of holding the city accountable,” says Kalpana Viswanath, who has conducted several such audits across India. She cited a recent community audit conducted by the NGO Jagori in Delhi’s Badarpur neighbourhood, where women respondents pointed to the lack of street lighting, unsafe stretches of road, and the absence of a place for women to sit without being harassed.
“The councillor responded by installing streetlights, police put a picket along the unsafe stretches, and women got a local community centre where they could hang out,” says Viswanath.
In 2013, Viswanath co-created Safetipin – an app that builds detailed neighbourhood-wise “safety-maps” of cities by crowd-sourcing information from users. In 2015-2016, Safetipin surveyed over 6,000km of road in Delhi to identify 7,483 “dark spots” that lacked adequate lighting and shared it with the Delhi Police.
Satyendar Jain, Delhi minister for public works, has promised to illuminate these spots. “Ultimately, the battle against violence and the quest for fun cannot be mutually exclusive,” says Shilpa Phadke. “We need to claim the city as our own. If we wait for mindsets to change, we might have to wait forever.”