This blog is written by a journalist based in Mumbai who writes about cities, the environment, developmental issues, the media, women and many other subjects.The title 'ulti khopdi' is a Hindi phrase referring to someone who likes to look at things from the other side.
Changing times: A separate ladies coupe in the Mumbai suburban train. Photo: Shashi Ashiwal
A recent survey reveals that women don't feel safe anymore even in Mumbai, a city where women have been part of the public spaces for a much longer time.
In October, Mumbaikars woke up rather rudely to a reality that millions of women living in that great city have to live with every day — that of sexual harassment in the public space. The incident that caught media attention took place outside a restaurant in suburban Mumbai. A group of friends, men and women, stepped outside the restaurant. When one of the young men objected to lewd remarks being directed at a woman in their group by four men who were hanging around, it first appeared that the matter would end there. Instead, these four returned with reinforcements, set upon the men in the group, killed one, Keenan Santos, on the spot and grievously wounded another, Reuben Fernandes. The latter died in hospital.
The incident shocked the city. Was it safe no longer for women to go out even with men friends? Was it unwise for men to intervene if women are harassed? And why did none of the people who stood by and watched intervene or call the police? Could this really be happening in Mumbai, a city where women feel safer than they do in practically any other city in the country?
A recent survey initiated by the women's resource group Akshara in Mumbai along with Hindustan Times and market research organisation Cfore has put some concrete numbers behind this unfortunate but emerging reality in the city, that women are not as safe as they thought they were. Of the 4,255 women interviewed for the survey, 99 per cent of them said they did not feel safe. What has changed to make so many women feel unsafe?
The public transport system in Mumbai is still better than in most Indian cities. Between the BEST buses and the local trains, over 80 per cent of the city's population travels. You would not know this if you saw the traffic jams at all times of the day. Yet, even people with cars and two-wheelers prefer Mumbai's public transport system. It is certainly a better and more pleasant option than spending long hours on the road. It is by no means as comfortable as the Delhi Metro. But the local trains especially are efficient and transport millions of people each day, way beyond their capacity.
Mumbai's local trains have separate women's compartments that do help in minimising the chances of sexual harassment on the trains. But in the buses, although there are a few seats reserved for women, there is no such separation between the space occupied by the men and women. It is here that women report the maximum amount of harassment by way of men rubbing against them, feeling them up etc. The survey revealed that 46 per cent of the women reported being sexually harassed. However, unlike Delhi, where women travelling on buses are afraid to shout or object to harassment because other passengers rarely support them, in Mumbai by and large women do get such support.
Apart from the buses, on Mumbai's streets too women report being touched, followed and subjected to lewd remarks. After dark, in areas such as the pedestrian underpasses, they feel particularly vulnerable. Girl students find that stepping outside their colleges is often hazardous as men are waiting to ply them with unwanted attention.
Why should any of this information come as a surprise? It does because the perception that Mumbai was safer for women was based on their lived experience. Ask any young woman who has grown up in Bangalore, or Delhi, or even Chennai about the sense of liberation she feels when she moves to Mumbai. The principal reason is the ease and safety of travel, even at late hours of the night. This gives them a sense of freedom, of choice, that they do not have in places where their movements are restricted because of the absence of safety after dark or the inadequacy of transport.
Women have used the trains and buses in Mumbai for decades. They have been in the public space, working in offices, selling wares on the streets, running small businesses, working in restaurants and in a myriad other jobs. So women have been an integral part of the public space in Mumbai for a much longer time than in more conservative cities in the North, for instance.
If despite this, the majority of women say they feel unsafe, then the reasons need to be considered and addressed. The steps taken to deal with this would be relevant not just for Mumbai's women, but for women in other cities as well.
One of the telling statistics in the survey was that 63 per cent of the women who faced harassment never told their families. Worst still, in a city where women have counted on support from men if they objected, 78 per cent of the men interviewed (776 men were part of the survey) admitted that they did not help.
What should be done? It is clear a stronger law is essential to deal with sexual harassment — at the workplace, in educational institutes and in the public space. Women should not feel that they have no option but to remain quiet. But even if there is such a law, it can only be effective if women feel it is possible to use it. Many cities, including Mumbai, are now beginning to realise the importance of not just laws but making it easier for women to approach the law enforcers. Hence in Mumbai there is one number that women can call if they are attacked or in need of help.
But even a stronger law, better policing, a more responsive criminal justice system will not suffice. What is happening to women in our cities is the result of a growing culture of impunity — where you know you can get away with breaking a law regardless of whether it is a minor misdemeanour, like driving through a red light, or more serious crimes like defrauding public funds or even murder. In such an atmosphere, not just women but anyone who is vulnerable will feel unsafe.
At a time when people's protests seem to be making some impact on public policy, perhaps women too have to launch protests that demand an equal right to safety in public spaces. “Freedom from sexual harassment” is a campaign that everyone would support. Akshara has launched a Blow the Whistle campaign, urging women to shout out if they are harassed. College students in the Mumbai are conducting a Zero Tolerance Campaign, the Chappal Marungi and Freeze the Tease campaigns. These are positive steps. Women cannot afford to sit back and be silent victims.
Making a difference: Easier at the lower levels. Photo: D.B. Patil
Even if elected women representatives are as bad as their male counterparts in cities, why should they be denied a role in governance?
When all other structures in our cities fall apart, one will survive — the ubiquitous garbage dump. It is resilient to every kind of strategy. Try as you may, it refuses to budge. Around every corner, practically on every street and in every neighbourhood, this quintessential monument symbolising urban mismanagement continues to thrive and grow.
One such stubbornly resilient dump is part of our neighbourhood in Mumbai. Despite its impressive size, it gets cleared sporadically because it is hidden from view, lying at the back of our building compound. We contribute a fair share to it. So does the large slum that is as much part of our neighbourhood as the puccabuildings. Both have coexisted, often with a sense of resigned co-dependency, for more than four decades.
Years of daily calls to the municipality to send a truck to clear the dump have made little difference to its size or spread. Recently, we saw a glimmer of hope when we realised that a municipal election was around the corner. Surely the thirst for votes would prompt the elected representatives of the richest municipal corporation in India to at least pretend that they cared for their constituents.
So a message was sent to the corporator. A woman. Surely, women are concerned about garbage, clean water, issues that affect the ordinary person. The response was almost instant. But ‘madam' was too busy. So she sent her husband who, without a shadow of embarrassment introduced himself, took down the complaint and promised action. That the ‘action' finally taken consisted of building a retaining wall to prevent the slum from collapsing in the next monsoon without dealing with the garbage is another story. But the husband's role at a time when the Maharashtra government has decided to increase reservation for women in panchayats and nagarpalikas from 33 per cent to 50 per cent highlights one of many issues that swirl to the surface each time the subject of women's reservation comes up.
Last week, the Bombay High Court dismissed a petition challenging this increase in the percentage of reservation for women. The man who went to court argued that combined with the existing reservation for scheduled castes and tribes, the number of ‘general' seats in the 227-member municipal corporation of Mumbai would be reduced to a mere 77. This, he felt, was unjust. The court thought otherwise.
What this judicial challenge raises is why the question of reservation for women met with practically no resistance when it was first introduced through the 73 and 74 Constitutional Amendment and why now, in the case of a big city like Mumbai, there is opposition.
Reservation at the panchayat level has made a difference. It has not only opened the way for literally thousands of women to get a share in political decision-making but it is changing relations within families and forging new role models for a whole new generation of young women. So why the resistance in cities like Mumbai?
The core issue is money. Panchayats and nagarpalikas in smaller towns do not manage large funds. Municipalities in cities like Mumbai do. Wherever money is involved, the stakes are higher. And the higher you go in the political ladder, the greater the resistance to reservation for women.
It is hardly surprising that the Women's Reservation Bill, that provides for 33 per cent reserved seats for women in Parliament and in the state assemblies, has still not been passed. Although the Rajya Sabha passed it last year, there is no sign of it in the Lok Sabha. In any case, given the political deadlock in the Lok Sabha during the current winter session, there is absolutely no chance of it surfacing this year, or possibly even the next.
The few studies on the role of women in urban governance suggest that there are important differences in what women can do in elective office in urban areas compared to panchayats. Besides the money factor, in cities political parties can openly back candidates unlike in the panchayats. As a result, both monetary and political stakes are higher in urban local body elections.
So far, there is little to indicate that elected women representatives in cities or megacities like Mumbai have made a marked difference to the quality of governance. They appear to be as good or as bad as their male counterparts and usually follow the dictat of their political party. Mumbai, for instance, has a woman Mayor but you would never know that. There is nothing in the way in which the city is managed that suggests that the presence of a woman Mayor or of women in the municipal corporation has made any difference to the quality of governance.
One of the few studies of women in local urban governance was conducted a few years back in Delhi and Bangalore. Mary E. John, who heads the Centre for Women's Development Studies in Delhi, wrote a fascinating article based on this study, which looked at the relationship of women to power, in the Economic and Political Weekly (September 29, 2007). The picture that emerged was not entirely black and white. There were too many different factors at play such as class, caste, community as well as level of education and occupation that had to be taken into account.
For instance, the study found that the most common occupations of the elected men were contractor, developer or factory owner while 75 per cent and 42 per cent of the women in Bangalore and Delhi respectively were housewives. The majority of women who had a profession were teachers. This alone gives some indication of the difference in the ‘connections' men and women have when they are elected. Of course, even if the women were housewives, their husbands often had businesses that benefitted from the wife being an elected representative.
Another interesting factor that emerged was that both men and women acknowledged that they could not have entered the election race without a “godfather” who brought them into the political arena. In contrast, in panchayats many women have managed to enter without such patronage.
Also, while the issue of ‘proxies', or husbands standing in for their wives who have been elected, has generally been seen as a negative aspect of women's reservation, the study suggested that this was not confined to the women and that many men were also ‘proxies' for those who had backed them. Also, in many instances, as at the national level, political participation had evolved into a family business. When a woman's seat became a general seat by virtue of rotation, the husband contested for that seat. Thus the seat remained within “the family”. Is this any different from what is happening in Amethi, Rae Bareli and Baramati, to name just a few such family fiefdoms?
What seems clear, given the differences between urban and rural areas, is that we cannot assume that more elected women will automatically mean better governance in cities. Reservation is essential because women have not managed to enter the system without it. So even if they are as inefficient or corrupt as the men, should they be denied a share of the decision-making pie?