This article originally appeared on VICE India.
On October 29, the Delhi government executed a free bus ride scheme exclusively for the women in the capital city. The move, they rationaled, would help ensure their safety. Additionally, in response to studies such as a World Bank estimate which reports that 20 million women have disappeared from India’s workforce since 2004, this move could help women get back on the streets and drive the city’s economy. The new free ticket in pink has a message in Hindi from Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal at the back: "I want great prosperity for you and your family. When women progress, the country progresses.”
But before it was rolled out yesterday, the decision was met with mixed responses when Kejriwal first announced it this August. While many agreed that making travel free in Delhi would ensure more women in public spaces in Delhi, there were some who argued everything from overcrowding to gender equality.
Yesterday, when free rides were finally implemented across Delhi and National Capital Region (that includes Gurgaon and Noida), the response was still, well, mixed. The overriding question still is: Will it really change things for wome
Delhi’s notoriety as the most unsafe city in the country (and even the world) is not new. In 2018, a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey (which was later rejected by Maneka Gandhi, then Union Minister for Women and Child Development) ranked India as the world’s most dangerous country for women because of its high rate of sexual violence. Delhi, in our own scheme of things, constantly tops the list pertaining to sexual violence against women.
In 2018, a panel put together to study the root cause of crimes against women in the city, found that growing instances of violence against women in college campuses, public transport and places with homeless population and low-income groups all stem from one thing: Poor implementation of public transport. While harassment in buses and bus stops is very common, this failure of basic and “biased” infrastructure adds on to the larger patriarchal mentality that has already failed women in terms of mobility and independence.
This very significant but normalised problem in Delhi is difficult to explain until one gets on the ground. Perhaps I could give my own example. Before I moved to Mumbai two years ago, I was terrified of public buses. The reason: I lived in Delhi. Having spent most of my adult life (over 10 years of college and work) in the city that is infamously called the most unsafe one in the country, I have had my own (unfair) share of unpleasant experiences.
I clearly remember one night in 2011, when I got on a public bus after work (it was 9 PM) and, a few minutes later, confronted a man whom I had caught staring at me for several minutes. I immediately complained to the bus conductor to get him off. The conductor, in turn, negotiated a better seating arrangement for this man—several rows of seats ahead of me. The man, however, did not stop staring and when I got off, he immediately came to the window near the exit door and aimed a big, phlegm-filled blob of spit on me, smiling viciously as the bus drove away. It misfired, thankfully, and landed on my bag. I assumed my bag was not where he was aiming. That was the last time I took a public bus in Delhi. The absolute hate and impunity with which that man responded just for being yelled at for staring, was chilling. Many women have faced worse, I reassured myself.
There’s an unsaid rule for women in Delhi, especially the ones who do not have the luxury to drive around in Ubers and personal cars: That occupying public spaces and vehicles is at your own risk. For those 10-odd years, walking down the street or taking a rickshaw alone after dusk, without having rape anxiety serve as a constant companion, was unknown territory.
I would resort to either sharing my live location with friends or be on the phone with them throughout my commute. Uber/Ola weren’t safe too: There were way too many horrible ordeals women go through with their drivers. Our office made it an option for staffers to take the office cab after 8.30 PM, because, well, not safe. I restricted my partying to house scenes. I’ve never had a sip of alcohol in a club at night unless I had a friend who could drop me home in their car.
And then, in 2012, six men (one of whom was a delinquent) viciously raped and tortured a physiotherapist intern in a bus on a December night. One of them beat the girl with a wheel jack handle, shoved it into her vagina, and pulled out her intestines with his own hands. The girl was 23, and she succumbed to her injuries a few days later. I was 22 when the news broke. I used to frequent the area—a university complex—where she took the bus from. I used to go for movies at the cinema hall she was returning from.
This case, which led to mass protests across the country and a swift arrest and trial of the accused, jolted many like me. In 2015, when the BBC made a documentary on the incident, one of the accused who featured in the film said he “had the right to teach [the girl] a lesson”. "Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 percent of girls are good,” he said.
The man had not a single speck of remorse on his face. At that moment, he represented a very common mentality that exists among the people that occupy Delhi’s public spaces: That whatever happens to the girl is her own fault. You stepped out at night and were cat-called? You were harassed by men in the general compartment of the metro? You went to the streets wearing a pair of shorts and a few men in a car stopped by and asked you for your “rate”? The common answer still is: You should have known better. For weeks after the case broke, I would walk the streets with a knife under my sweater sleeves (which I wish was an exaggeration, but it’s not).
The 2012 gang rape left an indelible mark on any woman, young or old, who witnessed the news and the aftermath. There was one sentiment that we all collectively experienced: It could have easily been me.
Since the 2012 case, several women’s safety initiatives have sprung up, form women-only rickshaws, cabs and metros to security checks by female cops. There are also social campaigns such as #TakeBackTheNight and #MeetToSleep, which have women reclaiming public spaces that have been hostile to us for generations. And it’s only natural to question the safety aspect despite it all, because the crime rate against women hasn’t exactly dropped over the years.
However, it’s important to note that affordability is the key factor when it comes to mobility of women and public transport. In Delhi, one-third of working women use buses and the metro. A large part of the population walks. Women with access to personal vehicles are marginal as compared to men. Two years ago, when the metro hiked its fares, a projection of four million riders per day reduced to 2.5 million per day. The bus, then, has been the only affordable system for many. But by making it accessible to even those who cannot afford to take the bus, Delhi can see more women use this mode of transport, which would naturally result in other women around feeling safer in numbers.
It’s yet to be seen how this experiment will combat street harassment and violence against women, but isn’t it a pretty decent, even if terrifyingly small, step forward just to see more women out and about? As someone who used to take public commute at nights, mostly alone, the scariest part of my journey would be to not see women in the metro compartments or auto stands. There were no women in that bus I took in 2011 too. It would be interesting to see how the policy trickles down to something as basic as the presence of women in spaces usually dominated by men.
Lastly, in 2017, when I moved to Mumbai and walked the streets without being stared at, or cat-called, or just brushed against in a crowded space, a heavy load lifted off my chest. A recent survey by Safety Trends and Reporting of Crime shows that only 30 percent of households in Mumbai worry about a female family member working alone in the city, as compared to Delhi’s 87 percent. For me, this disappearance of fear was incomprehensible at first. Is this how you feel when you’re not scared every single minute of your life? It was cathartic. I still haven’t been able to take a bus in India since 2011, though. Maybe it takes more than just making bus rides free to conquer a scarring fear. But until then, this will do.
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