A few days ago, a woman was subject to horrific sexual harassment and violence at the hands of the Ola cab driver ferrying her to Kempegowda airport. In this instance, the victim registered a case immediately, leading to his arrest and the seizure of his vehicle. Media reports say that the driver has been blacklisted by Ola.
As far as instances of sexual harassment are concerned, this one seemed to have a satisfactory ending, with the culprit in police custody. The mishaps are many, resolutions remain few. This is not an unheard of situation for female travellers and most women subject harassment in some form or the other on the roads of Bengaluru. This ranges from verbal harassment to groping, stalking, molestation and rape. Most women have felt unsafe during their daily commute at some point in their lives, whether they are on foot, or using either public or private transport. For a number of reasons, most choose not to complain.
These reasons include the lack of evidence: a passerby on a motorbike slows down, gropes a woman from behind and speeds off before she recovers from the shock. Women on crowded buses or trains are also commonly subject to this bad behaviour. If the situation has moved past fleeting anonymity, the victim is threatened against complaining, usually with far more dire consequences. Sometimes, impediments are encountered during the actual filing of the complaint, including the time of night, the lack of female police personnel to record the report and of course social stigma.
The government of Karnataka has reacted, introducing a few steps towards women's safety, as have the BMTC and the police. These include emergency phone numbers, special mobile apps and sensitivity training across the board for drivers, conductors, police personnel and Hoysala vehicles and Sarathi devices.
While NCRB reports a manifold increase in the number of complaints in Bengaluru, and the resultant increase in action from the various arms of the government, we must bear in mind that this number still represents a mere fraction of reality. Indeed, safe mobility for women remains an unsolved problem, as the recent cab incident indicates. But why?
There have been studies both in India and the world over what it takes to build safer roads for women commuters. The fundamental issue is threefold: Women commuters have different patterns, cities tend to be built around male commuters and the safety of the commute is just about what happens inside the vehicle. Women are not represented sufficiently in planning, design and solutions although they are most aware of the issues they face.
In a city like Bengaluru, as in many cities, women travel for a host of reasons. They are typically more likely to be responsible for household shopping, which may require short trips, many stops and frequent visits to the stores. They may be required to chaperone children from schools and classes, a chore that may require travel of moderate distances. They may work and commute long distances at the beginning and end of day. And, they may travel out of town on work or otherwise. All of these may include stops, again due to daily household shopping like picking up the groceries or stationery for children etc.
Male travel patterns tend to be more point to point, longer distances, largely for work, and more predictably scheduled. Safety issues women face during commuting go well beyond their vehicle, as during the trips. The garment worker, who returns at the end of the day on a BMTC bus, is vulnerable during that last-mile walk to her house. The commuter taking the Metro or public bus may be harassed due to over crowding. The cab user, well, we just learned of this horrific incident.
Single point solutions have repeatedly failed. CCTV cameras, fallen into disrepair, stay that way. Emergency phone numbers are created often, then left unattended. Many women do not have smart phones for mobile apps. Beyond this, Bengaluru has hardly a few hundred female police personnel with cities like Mumbai have a few thousand. This means that the it is traumatic to even file a complaint.
This has very serious ramifications on not just women, who may hesitate or even stop some of their travel, work and commute but on society as a whole. It emboldens anti social elements and criminals as poor prevention and law enforcement allows them a free reign compared to the female citizens. It also impacts the economy of the city, whose GDP could be much higher and economy much more vibrant if women could safely work and hence consume and spend without worry.
UN Women and other agencies suggest the following:
1. Include women in planning, design and finding solutions for safe mobility. This helps the specific issues faced in Bengaluru reaching to and from home and within public transport and cabs. A city built to be safe for the most vulnerable, be it women, children, lesser privileged, disabled, transgendered or seniors is in general safer for all.
2. Address the issue from comprehensively without gaps. In general reasonably populated and well lit areas are safer. That implies frequent and inter-connected public transport options. Frequent to prevent over crowding, that itself being a cloak for abuse. And inter-connected to minimise the gaps in safety in walking through subways or by lanes to get to the next commute option as women tend more to truncate their trips for shopping or child pick up etc.
3. Safe public transport services must include: 1/ emergency buttons in each and every cab, auto, bus and Metro or rail coach 2/ training to transport personnel on handling emergencies, Hoysala and police emergency numbers to call, driving to the nearest police station etc. 3/ a single emergency number for the whole state (or preferably country, like 911) so every man and woman know it by heart, that is guaranteed staffed and responsive and is embossed on every transport vehicle.
In the particular case of cab aggregators like Ola, there are already some advantages like GPS tracking so the location of the vehicle is instantly known. They also have a record of the driver, name, address, contact, vehicle etc. In addition, their call centres, are always staffed. This means that if an emergency button is mandated in every cab, along with disabling central locking, guaranteed help is accessible to the victim. The cab companies must strictly adhere to safety norms and their license to operate must be predicated on following the highest safety standards.