Dressed in a blue off-shoulder dress and pumps, Shreya Jain, 21, is waiting with a bunch of girlfriends for the Metro going towards Badarpur. It is Thursday. “We’re going to Velocity in GK (a pub in Greater Kailash-I),” she tells me. An economics graduate from Delhi University’s Daulat Ram College, she’s now studying to become an actuary. This is the only free day she gets in the week. So, on Thursdays, she takes the Metro from her GTB Nagar home in north Delhi to “Medical” (the All India Institute of Medical Sciences), where a few of her friends wait for her. From here, they travel farther south, to watch movies, eat out and sometimes go to pubs. “If it weren’t for the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro, I wouldn’t have been able to dress this way,” she says.
Inside the compartment, Jain is far from conscious about her clothes and isn’t worried about people staring. But she remembers a time before the women’s compartment was introduced on 2 October 2010. When she first came to Delhi from Chhattisgarh in 2009, she would have to travel in the general compartment. That meant dressing more conservatively, she says. The compartments would be chock-a-block, and there was definitely no way that she and her friends could have planned an outing like this, Jain adds.
Ritika Jain, 26, works at a BPO in Noida. She too remembers taking the rush-hour train before the ladies’ compartment segregated the traffic of men and women commuters. She lowers her voice as she tells me that someone had groped her behind. When she turned around, only a venerable-looking old man was standing there. “I couldn’t even say anything; I wasn’t sure who had done it,” she says. Now, even when she’s travelling with a male companion, she makes sure she’s in the ladies’ coach while the man stands in the bridge between the first two cars of the train.
It was exactly this sort of thing that prompted the Delhi Metro to launch the women’s compartment. “We had reserved seats for ladies from the start, but we found that it wasn’t enough,” says Anuj Dayal, executive director—corporate communications of the Delhi Metro Rail Corp. (DMRC). He adds that they had noticed it was getting uncomfortably crowded for women, especially since the Metro had just four coaches to a train back then compared with up to eight cars per tube now. Twenty-five per cent of the 2.2 million commuters who use the Metro daily are women. It made a great deal of sense to give them their own space.
Activist Kalpana Viswanath says, “eventually we would like for all spaces to be safe for women” but for now, this temporary solution is welcome indeed.
“The compartment is a space for yourself. It is not invaded by the male gaze,” Viswanath says. She is a senior adviser for the Safe Delhi Initiative of Jagori, a women’s non-governmental organization.
What’s more, the women’s compartment of the Delhi Metro has since evolved into more than just a medium to get from Point A to Point B. The Metro commute offers travellers anywhere between a blissful few minutes to a couple of hours of free time. Women are using that time to do what they want.
On the morning commute, many catch up on sleep, still more read books and newspapers, some listen to music on their cellphones and iPods, some play phone games and some pass the time just watching other people. Author Kamla Bhasin, 67, says she loves to watch people on the Metro. There are women clad in all kinds of saris, fashionable dresses, pants, jeans, skirts, shorts, salwar-kameez, and what Bhasin finds most heartening, they’re almost always in “sensible shoes”.
Many women spend their time talking—on phones or to friends they’re travelling with. As the peak traffic gathers each day from 8-11am and again from 5-8pm, the decibel level rises. There are nearly 300 women packed in a compartment that has seating for around 50. Most days, there’s a cacophony of sounds. It’s hard to not overhear snippets; about how one was able to get a bargain on bottle gourds and apples today, how another aced a test after studying for 3 hours; and how a third who has just moved to Delhi can’t get over the hardwater problem in her locality. Conversations about finding friends through Facebook and making plans to watch BA Pass over the weekend mingle with the voice-recorded message blaring the station name and other announcements that few regulars heed.
The compartment is a place only for women. It’s a space they guard jealously too. Any man who feigns ignorance of the rule denying him entry because he is an out-of-towner or first-time Metro user is promptly shown the door.
There’s a fine of Rs.250 for men caught travelling in the women’s coach. As of 30 June, the Delhi Metro has fined 35,482 passengers for “unlawful entry into the coach reserved for ladies”. The objective, of course, is not to collect money but to deter men from getting into that compartment, says Mohinder Yadav, senior public relations officer (operations), DMRC.
But the fine has only covered an average of 35 men a day. Many more are prevented from boarding this coach each day by the women themselves, and by the Metro staff on duty. And they are serious about enforcing this rule too. At Connaught Place’s Rajiv Chowk Metro Station, a major line-changing hub, Metro staff routinely prevent men from entering the first compartment of the train going to Gurgaon. It’s the coach closest to the stairway. But men are barred entry. Even if it means they miss the train altogether.
Almost 66 years after India gained independence, women in the Capital need to every day negotiate simple freedoms. The Delhi Metro and particularly the women’s compartment has given the Capital’s women a degree of mobility, even though it has its limitations.
Viswanath says she uses the Metro all the time, as does her 18-year-old daughter. As convenient and comfortable as it is, she says the women’s compartment is only a “cocoon”. The moment you get out of the Metro, there’s still the rest of the city to negotiate, she says.
There are the problems of last-mile connectivity, ill-lit streets and entire streets that are deserted in the commercial districts after office hours.
“My daughter calls me when she’s travelling late by Metro. ‘Pick me up from the station, Mom,’ she says. But what about the other women?” Viswanath asks.
It’s a problem the DMRC is aware of. They have tried to sign on connecting bus services. But Dayal says it hasn’t worked out for them so far. The new Metro “More Delhi” smart cards hold out a promise. “Metro.Bus.Taxi.Parking”, they will offer all these facilities through just this one “Common Mobility Card”. For now, women must walk, drive, take a rickshaw, a bus, to even get to the stations.
At 10pm, the usually bustling lanes of Connaught Place are quiet. You scamper in your hurry to get to the Barakhamba Metro station. Once inside, you feel safe. There are still operatives of the Central Industrial Security Force on duty. They are still alert, and check the bags. The station is well-lit. Then there is the comforting presence of other women on the platform. Women who are taking the late train back from work. Groups of women who are returning from watching a movie. Women who are carrying their bags and their sleeping children in their arms.