When the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA) proposed skywalks — elevated walkways — they were envisioned to make the commute to suburban railway stations, taxi stands and other strategic locations more pedestrian-friendly. The state agency extensively consulted experts, to make them convenient for as many pedestrians as possible. However, one gaping lacuna in the planning stage was that no specific measures were adopted towards women’s safety. This is reflected in the findings of the HT-Akshara women’s safety survey, where 43% of the 4,225 women interviewed said that they perceived skywalks — which tend to get lonely and deserted at night and early in the morning — to be unsafe. 13% said they had faced harassment on skywalks.
Many pedestrians, especially women, would rather navigate through congested roads, than take the skywalk. Veena Singh, 28, a marketing assistant, prefers to take an autorickshaw to get to Bandra (West) from the eastern side, than take the skywalk from Kalanagar junction to the Bandra station, and take the foot-over-bridge to the east side.
Though the second option is both economical and saves time, Singh needed to put safety first. “One afternoon, while I was on the skywalk, I saw a man in his mid-40s, following me,” she said. That night, she saw him again. “This time, he passed lewd comments at me, and followed me for four days in a row.” Singh then vowed never to use the 1.3-km skywalk again. “Even in the afternoons, there are too many men on the skywalk. Sometimes, they deliberately brush their hands against my body,” she rued.
The skywalk in Bandra was the first to be built in the city, at a cost of Rs13 crore, and was inaugurated in 2008. Presently, 35 of these elevated walkways dot the city’s skyline, with another one under construction at Vikhroli. However, apart from the Bandra (East) skywalk, none of the others have closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras.
Moreover, in a city that has earned the tag of one that never sleeps, there are no security guards posted on skywalks after 11pm. “There is security on the skywalks till 11 pm after which hardly any people use the skywalks,” said Dilip Kawathkar, spokesperson, MMRDA.
So many feet above the ground, help is not close at hand, and women said they feel “trapped” while walking on them. Vakola resident Vedika Puri, 24, who attends maths tuition classes in Santacruz (West) feels scared to use the 680 metre Santacruz-Vakola skywalk at night, as it is usually deserted. “My classes end at 10pm and I would often take the skywalk to get to Vakola. One day, two men threw some pieces of men’s undergarments at me,” said Puri, adding that she didn’t use the skywalk for two weeks after that. “Now, whenever it looks deserted, I talk to my boyfriend on the phone loudly, as it makes me feel safer.”
Another problem pointed out by women commuters is that lights on the skywalks are poorly maintained. Though the MMRDA has installed tube lights at regular intervals, many are broken.
Seema Santosh, 29, a banker, avoids taking the 390-metre skywalk from Badlapur station while coming home at night because it’s too dark. “Most of the lights on the skywalk are either not working or broken,” said Santosh.
The lack of security guards (patrolling the length of the skywalks) also deters women from using the facility. Vineetha Kumar, 36, a homemaker who lives near Sion Circle, uses the skywalk only during the day. “While in the mornings and afternoons, there are many school children on the skywalk, at night, there is no security guard after 9. 30 pm,” she says. “Once, when I was walking from my dance class near Sion station to my house at about 8 pm, two men started whistling and making cat calls. My daughter, who is 15 years old, has also had a similar experience.”
Using skywalks early in the morning too has proven to be unsafe. “Till three months ago, I used to take my morning walk on the Borivli skywalk at about 6.30 am,” said Sharda Kocchar, 40, a physics teacher. “I stopped because once, I came across a man who flashed his private parts. I ignored him but he followed me. I panicked because there was no exit midway and I had to run to the other end of the skywalk.”
To counter the problem of deserted skywalks, MMRDA had suggested allowing hawkers on them. However, activists pointed out that this would make skywalks as congested as footpaths, and the plan was put on hold.
“For skywalks to be safe for women, there need to be enough pedestrians using them, which may not be the case,” said Sudhir Badami, a transport analyst. For instance, despite the proximity of the Kalanagar skywalk in Bandra to offices and housing colonies, very few use it, he said.