As a newcomer to the city in 2008, Aditi Padiyar's first encounter with an unsafe public space was the pedestrian subway at the Kherwadi junction at Bandra (East). For three consecutive evenings that year, a young man trailed Padiyar as she walked through the subway, on her way home.
"He would walk very close to me. He seemed to be someone who lived on the street," said the 21-year-old, who now lives in Kalyan.
By the fourth day, Padiyar began to get suspicious, and gathered the courage to yell at the man, who ran away.
Since the incident, Padiyar hasn't stepped into a "creepy" subway. "I am not comfortable taking subways because they are dimly-lit, and all kinds of anti-social elements hang around there. I prefer to walk on roads, where one does not feel trapped," she said.
The city has about 20 subways, meant for the convenience and safety of citizens. However, findings of a survey conducted by the Hindustan Times and Akshara, a Dadar-based women's resource centre, revealed that 37% of the 4,225 women interviewed had faced harassment in subways. Nearly 76% of them perceived the underground walkways to be unsafe.
Dimly lit, poorly maintained and almost always unmanned, subways are often home to several anti-social elements and illegal activities.
The Borivli subway, for instance, is one that most are wary of using. "The few times that I used the Borivli subway, it was an uncomfortable walk. I've seen commercial sex workers soliciting customers at the entry and exit points. Drug addicts and homeless also occupy it," said Krishna Shah, 35, who prefers to brave the traffic and cross the busy road to get to the station.
On the other hand, the Metro Cinema junction subway - built at a cost of Rs18 crore and inaugurated in 2008 - with it's swanky interiors, looks a lot more inviting and is a pleasant contrast to the paan-stained white bathroom tiles in most subways. However, women said that at night, the subway is like a deserted tunnel.
The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which builds and maintains the subways, has woken up to these dangers. "The civic administration has decided to prioritise road-over-bridges and not construct new subways owing to issues such as water logging during monsoons, and presence of underground utilities," said Aseem Gupta, additional municipal commissioner, BMC.
However, existing subways need to be made women-friendly. A good example are the two busiest subways in the city, those at Churchgate and Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, which are lined with shops and food stalls, which attract crowds and are perceived to be safer.
"Women feel safe in these subways as the shops have transformed the place," said sociologist Shilpa Phadke, professor of media and cultural studies at the Tata Institute of Social Science. "Moreover, safety is also about perception - how safe I am, as against how safe the place is," added Phadke, who co-authored 'Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets,' a book on women's access to the city's public spaces.
Urban design experts said that planners must keep in mind women's safety while designing subways. "There is no acknowledgment that women comprise half the workforce in Mumbai and contribute to the city's economy," said Pankaj Joshi, executive director, Urban Design Research Institute. "There has to be credible security and reassurance for women that they won't be molested or harassed."
Mustansir Dalvi, professor, JJ School of Architecture, said that enclosed pedestrian subways have always been a problem - both real and perceived.
"The subways of the future must be designed to let natural light percolate to some distance along with sidelights for good visibility," said Dalvi. "The subway will then be a safer place both with regard to perception and safety."