Why Delhi’s public transport is still a war zone for women
The capital’s roads are unsafe for women, but the lack of adequate and safe public transport makes this problem even worse.
As the clock strikes 8 every evening, Medhavi Nath goes into panic mode. At her south Delhi office, she begins wrapping up work quickly to get home, trying to avoid her biggest nightmare — travelling alone and falling prey to potential molesters emboldened by the sight of a lonely woman at night.
A lawyer at a legal firm, Nath often has to stay late but has limited transport options. She isn’t confident about using cab-aggregator services after the infamous case of an Uber driver allegedly raping his customer two years ago, and finding an autorickshaw to take her home to Dwarka is a herculean task.
The metro is a reliable mode but her house is about five kilometres away from the nearest station and when asked about taking a bus, she exclaims “No way!” The 26-year-old says her fears aren’t unfounded and recalls an incident when she was groped in a Delhi Transport Corporation bus.
“It was around 9pm. A man standing behind touched me inappropriately. I shouted and caught the guy by his collar. I made the driver stop the bus too. But I was told to get off and solve it myself because other passengers were getting late.”
Nath is among thousands of women in the Capital who worry every day how they will get to work and back, all because this city of 18 million has few safe public transport options for women.
The December 16, 2012 and the Uber rape cases are only some of the hundreds of such crimes that have repeatedly put the spotlight on the sorry state of public conveyances in Delhi. But the situation hasn’t improved.
For example, the DTC bus network is the mainstay of Delhi’s transport system with more than 4.5 million people using it every day. But just 5% of the 4,121 DTC buses are under surveillance, leaving almost no safety mechanism. By November 2014, the DTC had installed non-Wi-Fi CCTV cameras in 200 buses as part of a pilot project. But two years later, there has been no increase in the number of buses with such surveillance.
The Metro is often seen as the lone safe transport but a lack of last-mile connectivity has hobbled the network. Most stations become deserted after 10pm and feeder bus services connecting the Metro hubs to far-flung residential places are either patchy or non-existent. Last year, a study conducted by Safetipin — an application for auditing public spaces — said women found areas around Gurgaon stations the most unsafe, primarily because of poor last-mile connectivity.
A 500-metre area around IFFCO Chowk was regarded as the most unsafe. With no safe public transport system in place, most women seem to have taken matters in their own hands. “I have a section reserved in my handbag to keep my safety gear. Pepper spray, a pocket knife and a torch are always in there. What else does a woman do? She has to be her own protector,” said Rachna Shrivastava, an IT professional.
The AAP government promised to deploy marshals in buses to keep sexual harassment at bay but the proposal has progressed at a snail’s pace. As of now, 2,791 marshals have been deployed in buses out of which 1,059 are home guards and 1,732 civil defence volunteers. The requirement is 8,300.
“As we do not have enough marshals for all buses, we deploy them on rotation. Most are deployed in the evening and late night,” explained a government official. A tender for 400 security guards-cum-marshals for 200 buses has been floated but the response has been tepid.
Ground realities indicate that hiring more marshals without adequate training might not solve the problem. For example Raj Kishore, a 54-year-old a DTC mechanic-turned-marshal who is generally given duty on the 604 DTC bus route, says his aim during his eight-hour shift is to not get into any altercations.
“My children tell me that I should just get done with my duty and not get into any trouble. At this age if I try to fight hooligans, I will put my own life in danger,” he said.
The DTC has not only employed home guards and civil defence volunteers but also over 300 of its mechanical staff that is nearing retirement. “If the intention was to actually protect women passengers, there would be some able-bodied guards who would have been assigned this duty. No offence, I know he is just doing his job, but in case someone attacks, I will have to protect him,” said a 19-year-old passenger, Sreelakshmi Iyer, pointing at an elderly marshal in her bus.
Even the ladies special buses that ply on city roads are not enough. There are only 28 such buses and each one runs just one trip a day. Worse, the number of “dark spots” – poorly lit areas with little street lighting — are still more than 250 across Delhi. “The locations keep changing, but on any given day the number of poorly lit areas does not come down below 200,” explained a police official.
Besides, the Delhi Transport Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited (DTIDCL) has been asked to provide proper lighting at Bus Queue Shelters (BQS) or bus stops and the police were supposed to deploy a policeman at every such point. But, that too, has been patchily implemented.
Several gender sensitisation programmes have also been launched to make bus, cab and auto rickshaw drivers more sensitive towards women passengers. Manas Foundation, an NGO working with drivers for making the city’s roads safer for women, has been conducting regular awareness drives and camps for drivers. ‘Mera imaan, mahilaon ka samman,’ is now a popular tagline that is often prominently displayed on city cabs and auto rickshaws.
“Patriarchy and the values attached to it are very deeply ingrained in collective consciousness. Varying shades of it are found across all sections of society, and drivers are no exception,” said Naveen Kumar, psychologist and trustee of the Manas Foundation.
In one session that HT attended, the drivers were engaged in role playing and storytelling, to bring out how gender roles and patriarchy affects not just women but also men.
A participant who did not wish to be named told HT that apart from his attitude with women passengers, his behaviour towards his wife and children has also changed after attending the sessions. “We are busy becoming the ‘man’ that we are expected to become that we forget being a human. All problems will be solved if we see women as equals,” he said. “Women do not need our protection. Just do not trouble them.”