Improvements in infrastructure should make cities safer for women. Delhi is the exception to the rule…

If you visit Delhi after a spell away from it, there are several things that strike you. First, the number of buses – green buses running at regular intervals. Then, the bus stops. Well-lit, with bus numbers clearly written on them. Then, the pavements, at least in South Delhi, that have suddenly become walkable. And of course, the Metro, which even people who never considered using public transport are now actually using.

A city with a good public transport system is considered not just a more liveable city, and greener city, but also a safer city, especially for women. So has the infrastructure of Delhi changed the culture of the city so that women feel safe?

Not if you listen to what a former Miss India and Bollywood actor Gul Panag has to say. After participating in the Delhi Half Marathon on November 21, here is what she told the media: “Delhi men won't let go of any opportunity to eve-tease or behave indecently. The people's mindset has not changed despite hosting a mega event like Commonwealth Games in October and it is definitely not an ideal place for women.”

After complaining about men trying to grope her as she ran the Half Marathon, Ms. Panag went on to say, “I had thought that Delhi would have undergone a change in its attitude towards women in the seven years that I have been away but it continues to be unsafe. I am not sure if they knew who I was but the fact that they misbehaved shows the attitude of the men in the city which needs to change drastically.”

Ms. Panag's statement brings out several important issues. First, that improvements in infrastructure, an important first step in making cities safer and better, are not enough. Cultural and attitudinal changes have to follow, a far more difficult challenge.

Changing mindsets

In fact, the Delhi government has made an attempt at tackling these attitudes, particularly in the men who run and manage the public services. Delhi is the only city in India where the state government has been responsive to a campaign by a women's group, Jagori, to make the city safer for women. It has held a dialogue with this group on how this can be done, cooperated in holding a safety audit, heeded advice on public transport and on street lighting and involved them in training bus conductors and drivers and even the police so that they can be more responsive to the problems women face in the public space.

Delhi's Minister for Women and Child Development, Dr. Kiran Walia, spoke at a conference on “Building Inclusive Cities” organised by Jagori and Women in Cities International earlier this week in the capital. She described, for instance, the difficulty she had in convincing the Delhi Metro to introduce special compartments for women. She argued that this was essential because crowded public transport was the site of some of the greatest instances of harassment that women experienced. She cited Mumbai, where all trains have women's compartments and there are even only-women specials during rush hour, to push her point.

She was first told that separate women's compartments in the Metro were simply not feasible. And finally when they were created, apparently men in some stations through which the Metro passed physically prevented women from entering these compartments! Yet another example of how infrastructure changes do not guarantee a change in attitudes.

So Delhi, with the huge investment of funds that has gone into making it a better city, remains unsafe for women. Not just for women like Ms. Panag, who could insulate themselves from the dangers and never need to rub shoulders with potential harassers but for the millions of women who have no choice but to use public transport and public spaces to survive each day they live in the city. Indeed, the very process of “improving” the city has made the lives of women at the opposite end of the class spectrum from Ms. Panag even more difficult.

Greater stress

Take domestic workers, for instance. In the effort to transform Delhi, thousands of poor people have been pushed beyond city limits to colonies where the public transport system is nowhere near as good as it has now become in the city. Yet, the women who work in the homes of the rich and the middle class in Delhi have no option but to commute in overcrowded buses and tolerate daily harassment because they must hang on to their jobs. Their resettlement colonies do not give them other job options to eliminate the need to commute. Thus improving a city at the cost of laying greater burdens on the shoulders of those who already live at the margins is clearly not the ideal solution.

Ms. Walia also spoke of women's “defecation right”. She pointed out that a crucial part of building a safer city was to ensure that women had access to sanitation. She recounted how women living in slums feared visiting public toilets — where the caretaker was a man — as these were sites of molestation and even rape, especially of young women. So a superficial improvement by way of fancy bus stops, flyovers, airport or a Metro should not detract from more basic components that make cities safer for all it residents. For women, access to sanitation is a crucial part of this.

The concept of inclusive cities articulated at this meeting was, in fact, an important one for India as it races ahead with urbanisation. By 2050, every other Indian will be living in a town or a city. What shape will our cities take by then? Will they continue to be examples of poor planning exacerbated by high levels of corruption that distort land use regulations? Of inefficient implementation of almost every infrastructure project? Of absence of environmental concern? And of projects that divide the city and cater only to the rich? Or is it still not too late to reconsider the basis on which plans are made, to infuse urban planning with an awareness of women's need for safety and security in the public space, to design an urban future that is democratic, equitable and inclusive?

E-mail the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com