Tanika Sharma, 21, can no longer enjoy a carefree ride in a BEST bus. Three months ago, in a crowded bus between Chembur and Kurla, a man pinched the architecture student's bottom.
"As I turned around, a scrawny man smiled back and pretended that nothing had happened," added Sharma, who cursed the man under her breath and walked ahead, without creating a scene.
Sharma is not the only one to have had such a harrowing experience. A Hindustan Times-Akshara survey, on how safe women feel in the city's public spaces, found that maximum instances of harassment had taken place in buses and bus stops. Of the 4,255 women interviewed, 46% said that they had been sexually harassed inside buses, while 23% said they had faced it at bus stops.
The ubiquitous red buses run by the Brihanmumbai Electricity Supply and Transport (BEST) Undertaking cover the length and breadth of the city and ferry thousands of commuters every day. However, gone are the days when the buses were known for their safe, comfortable commute and over crowding has compromised the safety of women, said traffic experts.
"Globally, buses are considered to be a protected option, because of the safety in numbers. But when those numbers turn into crowds, several safety issues arise," said Ashok Datar, a transport planner who runs a non-profit organisation, Mumbai Environment Social Network.
For women in the city, this overcrowding has translated into a harrowing commute. Bottom pinching, fondling, lewd comments and vulgar gestures are experiences that several Mumbaiites recounted with regard to their bus travel. "Men's elbows just happen to be level with women's breasts. In a crowded bus, the offender often gives lack of space as an excuse to touch, grope or fall over you," said Alisha Fernandes (name changed), 19, a Borivli resident.
Dipti Bhatia, 28, a chartered accountant, was similarly harassed in a crowded bus, but decided not to keep quiet about it. "I created a scene when a male commuter kept pushing against me. When co-passengers supported me, the man got off the bus in shame," she said.
At bus stops too, women have found themselves targets of lewd remarks and harassment. "If travelling in peak hours involves crowded buses, traveling at other times means waiting at a deserted bus stop." said Maithili Mohan, 25, who had harassed by a group of boys two months ago, while she was waiting at a bus stop in Kopar Khairane. "A group of boys approached the bus stop and passed lewd comments. I threatened to lodge a police complaint, but that triggered a fight. Some bikers passing by helped deal with the situation, she added.
Even the close circuit television (CCTV) cameras that BEST installed in some buses after the frequent terror attacks in the city have not been effective in deterring harassment.
While transport experts suggest measures such as having separate entrances for men and women, Mumbaiites feel a stronger mechanism to tackle such complaints, as well as a change in male behaviour, is needed. "Women need to be assured that they will receive help. More importantly, men should be taught to behave," said Nandita Shah, co-director of women's resource centre Akshara.
Sudhir Badami, member of a state appointed committee on the Bus Rapid Transport System (BRTS) said increasing the frequency of buses could help reduce overcrowding. "This would also reduce the waiting time at bus stops."
Jagdeep Desai, who teaches architecture at Rizvi College, said authorities should ensure bus stops are not hidden behind parked vehicles as this could isolate passengers.