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Increasingly many Indian cities have started adopting ladies special bus and EMU services as a means to tackle cases of harassment. Though it is billed as ‘positive discrimination', experts question the long-term viability and impact of such a move.

Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) operates 100 such bus services during the morning and evening rush hour, mainly to women's colleges.

Milli Nihila, an economics teacher at Stella Maris College, plans her day around the ladies special service. “Many of my students look forward to them,” she says. “The buses are not very crowded and you do not have to constantly keep a watch. The students have space for themselves inside the bus. They have fun,” she adds.

Though all regular MTC services have half the seats reserved for women, the amount of crowding during rush hour renders the move of little use. For example, the rush hour occupancy on two routes 18A (Broadway to Tambaram) and 29C (Besant Nagar to Perambur) are 156 per cent and 166 per cent respectively. MTC also operates buses exclusively for women on these two routes, which is relatively less crowded.

Men do come and occupy the reserved seats in the regular service, says K. Padmini, who is one of the 36 women conductors in MTC. “But when a lady asks them to get up, most men do. There are also instances when men argue with me for not asking women seated on the ‘general' seats to vacate. I have to constantly remind them that anyone can seat in the ‘general' seats. Those are the rules,” she says.

According to her, most young girls are remarkably tolerant to teasing. “They do not bother. Otherwise, picking a fight becomes a daily routine. It is part of life,” Ms.Padmini adds.

What survey says

According to a recent survey jointly done by Jagori, a women's group based in Delhi, and the Department of Women and Child Development, more than 80 per cent of women say they face harassment on public transport systems.

Due to increasing cases of harassment, cities like Mexico City, Lahore and Rio de Janeiro have adopted women-only services on select routes throughout the day. The buses are tagged with pink ‘women only' signs on the front and side.

MTC Joint Managing Director V. Babu says that the number of special services cannot be increased beyond a point as they are not fully occupied throughout the trip and at all times. “Many women also do not prefer to use it as they either have a male companion or have family members with them.”

Anupriya Ghosh, a researcher at Jagori, which has been working with the Delhi government to make the city's public transport gender friendly ahead of the Commonwealth Games, says “Ladies special is not effective in the long run. Their frequency is very low. And it is not feasible to have a separate transport system for every group or community.”

‘Positive discrimination'

According to her, 'positive discrimination' can be only for “immediate support” and the more important issue is to make public transport systems more inclusive. For the average women commuter, the immediate solution to harassment lay in an increase in the number of services. Sharmila Rosary, a B.Sc Chemistry student, says the first step should be to address the issue of crowding in public transport.