The rise of private-cab services reflects the failure of the proper allocation of tax money towards public transport
Most women who move to Mumbai in search of jobs are struck by the freedom of mobility. Even at midnight, the women’s coaches in the local trains will have passengers going home. And it’s this freedom that makes it relatively difficult to adjust to a more restricted life back home.
Unfortunately, the argument for safer cities for women invariably pushes for security cameras. There is a heightened, militarized view of a simple walk on the street. Unsurprisingly, fear and, thus, security have emerged as significant markets and according to US-based research firm IHS Technology, the video surveillance industry is expected to touch the $615 million mark in India by 2018.
There’s something about a healthy crowd that ensures a sense of safety for women and other genders. But the security that a well-used, vibrant public transport system offers is often overshadowed by talk of CCTV cameras. Once-sleepy towns that are now buzzing with malls that are open until late haven’t lit up their streets or increased bus frequencies. Even as bedtime across urban and semi-urban India is delayed and a nightlife emerges, the public transport system seems to be dormant.
The development of our towns, which today has come to be defined by the large brands that set up shops, is restricted to a privatized pattern of consumption that restricts movement to a set of people who can afford private vehicles.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that deter women from stepping out. International Labour Organization data shows a decline in the country’s female labour force participation from over 35% to 25% between 2004 and 2011. In Mumbai, which boasts of a fairly good public transport system, hardly 16% of the workforce comprises women. Even as Mumbai’s population continues to increase, the number of BEST (Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport) buses have reduced from 3,800 to 3,500, of which 10% are always under maintenance. This gravely affects the city’s 2.9 million daily bus commuters, with certain routes discontinued and others non-functioning after a certain hour.
A study of Ahmedabad’s Janmarg in the context of gender mainstreaming of public transport revealed that women prefer to take longer routes rather than cross a neighbourhood that is desolate or poorly lit. It also found that the overall travelling cost is high for daily-wage earners due to non-availability of “last mile connectivity". Late in the evening, when the buses are few or empty, women would prefer to take the autorickshaw. But they would rather drop such late trips altogether because of the higher fares in the three-wheeler. Similarly, the inability of the public transport system to provide the “last mile connectivity" is why most young women in Vietnam ride a scooter to work.
This is where the middle class shrugs, imagining that a scooter can be afforded by all. Cities like Pune with a large student population are wont to see women on scooters. However, for the country’s daily-wage earners, this is a cocoon of privilege they cannot afford. Nor should they, or anyone else, when the onus of ensuring good connectivity and transport is on the city planners and the local governments. Cars that connect a city like New Delhi are thus a bane to democratic access to the city, while the rise of private-cab services reflects the failure of the proper allocation of tax money towards public transport.
Vienna was able to incorporate gendered needs in its urban planning through an initial survey that revealed men had a more predictable pattern of movement in the city, while women had a varied pattern of movement owing to their various responsibilities through the day. It also found that women used public transport more often and made more trips on foot than men. Accordingly, city planners worked towards making the city pedestrian-friendly while additional lighting was added to make walking at night safer for women.
What about women-only buses? For many, the concept goes against the principle of gender mainstreaming because it continues to treat women and men differently. The issue of a fractured transport system affects women and men. However, the impact is felt more by women.
Unfortunately, our cities are designed in a way that does not account for the active presence of women. Take, for example, public toilets. Of the few public toilets in Indian cities, the space allocated for the women’s section is smaller because of a perception that there will be fewer women as compared to men.
When the government of Bihar distributed free bicycles to girls in 2007 in a bid to encourage them to continue in secondary school, the female dropout rate reduced drastically. For poor families that could not spare the money for transport to schools that were far away, college too was no longer a distant dream for their daughters. The sea of blue and white in the mornings across Bihar heralded a new vision of empowered girls, claiming the streets and their own movements.
Instead of the frustrated attempt at nabbing miscreants by being glued to CCTV camera feeds, perhaps it is time to let women feel confident by being on streets and moving freely through public transport systems that are cheap and efficient, and which cater to the freedom of any pattern of movement any hour of the day, by every socioeconomic class.
Priyanka Borpujari is an independent journalist and a Fulbright Scholar.