Mobility Rights – An Important Gender Issue in Hyderabad

The following is a report on a discussion organized by Lamakaan yesterday as part of a series of events to create engaged public action and education. Since, it involves questions of data, maps, campaigns and civic action – I am posting it here as a curtain raiser to the kind of things we will be working on at Do Din on December 14-15

At Do Din, some of the issues raised in the note below  will be used as concrete instances for data sourcing, visualization, design and policy related campaign creation workshops.

by Maitreyi Karnoor. (PhD candidate at EFLU)

What is common between a female student in a university campus in Hyderabad not being able to access the library after dark, a woman in an old city basti not drinking water during the day to avoid having to use the toilet that doesnt exist, and a female security guard at a mall spending 20-30% of her salary on transportation?

Large university campuses where distance between hostels and everything else (libraries, classrooms, photocopying machines, internet centres etc.) is considerable; lack of toilets; unavailability of safe transit facilities in the night, which are the seemingly unconnected reasons for the above mentioned instances, all point to one common theme: lack of attention to mobility rights of women. Sexual violence (harassment, molestation and rape) is a very probable threat in all these places. Add the factor of class to gender, access to public spaces becomes incredibly unequal.

Yet, solutions to these problems—through policy intervention,  infrastructural changes or citizen-led voluntary action cannot even be imagined today because we do not have the tools to capture concrete data for action. It needs concerted action by civil society organizations, government agencies, technologists, designers, planners. But it needs careful collation of data contributed by the public to create evidence for policy change and inputs for solutions.

This was the overarching theme that brought together Madhumeeta assistant professor at English and Foreign Languages, Tejaswini Madabhushi of Yugantar, R. Sunita of Anveshi, and Harsha Devulapalli and Anant Maringanti of Hyderabad Urban Lab on 30 November, 2013 at Lamakaan for a discussion on “Women in Urban Spaces”.

Harsha showed a map he’d made of public transport in Hyderabad, a painstakingly detailed charting of frequency of buses on each route (1 bus every 10 mins, 11-20 mins, etc.) and it was found out that there are large gaps in the map: large areas in the city not covered by any public transportation and long durations during the day when there is no public transportation available. The only means of transit in these spaces are shared autos and cabs – “paratransit”. While this sector of transport provision accounts for the livelihoods of roughly 4-5 lakh people in the city, it is an unregulated system in which women commuters feel insecure. The challenge facing the city is to learn how to talk about this sector without criminalising an entire section and at the same time enhancing the quality of life of women, Anant said.

Sunita spoke about the Midnight March that was undertaken to raise concerns over women’s safety, following the Delhi rape case. A major challenge there was arranging transportation for all the women participating in it since public transport was not available to the place the march was supposed to begin. This brought the issue of mobility to the forefront. Also an observation that the night-sweepers waited on the margins for the march to end before they could clean the streets, brought out questions of difference in viewing the street by different classes of women. While for a middle-class woman, the street is a medium, a space to be used to get to her place of work, for the sweeper, it is her place of work. Harassment on the road for her is harassment at the workplace, but there are no laws to give her her right.

Sunita alse spoke about OU campus where the women’s hostel is centralised for all women students studying in any of the colleges affiliated to it. There are about 4,000 women students living in this hostel, which is cut off from everything else and safe transportation to and from colleges, classrooms, libraries, etc. is an ongoing concern. RTC buses have been stopped from running within the campus and women students are the ones that suffer the most owing to this.

Tejaswini spoke about her own experience as a commuter and presented findings from her research. The main points that came up were: poor lighting at bus stops; buses not stopping at the right place; conductors making women passengers get off in the middle of the road far away from safe places when found to have boarded the wrong bus; enquiry counters crowded with men; lack of toilets and medical shops at bus stands (and the varied sensibility of cleanliness based on class) etc. Transportation for women security guards and janitors working late at malls, was discussed. Apparently only Inorbit mall provides transportation to its employees and the others do not even reimburse their transport costs. Most of these women live 5-6 km from their place of work – sometimes even further – and commuting safely is a daily gamble for them, not to mention expensive. She commented that safety is not an unconditional thing available to women. Not having to worry about safety everyday is almost a Human Right and wished that some of these conditions were taken away.

Madhumeeta spoke from the perspective of a university teacher. She said that university campuses (especially central universities) are ‘city islands’ where there is a large cultural disconnect with its immediate surroundings. This disparity has, on the one hand, lead to safety issues for women students when they step out, on the other, it has meant that the women workers (mostly contractual labourers) have to live far away from their place of work as the cost of living around the university has been rendered unaffordable to them. This brings in questions of transport and safety etc. that is being discussed. So gender issues become a question of ‘choice and agency’ or ‘survival’ based on who one is (student or worker).

Women’s hostels are a space of “doubled barrelled gaze,” she said, “of projected fantasies and policing”. While the former causes sexual harassment, the latter manifests in restrictions on freedom. For a woman student, it is a daily negotiation between these discourses.

Questions raised included that of accountability: who should be responsible for women’s safety on campuses – university admin or the government? Gender safety issues are always ongoing – why are they never completely resolved? Discussions around these by the speakers brought out several facts. One is that there are only 40-45% permanent teaching/admin staff in universities. The rest are ad-hoc and do not get involved in the concerns of the students. Another thing is that universities striving for ‘efficiency’ are cutting costs through reducing or stopping transit systems. Gender unequal policies, infrastructure etc. are anyway age-old concerns. While gender issues are looked at from the ‘atrocity’ lens, transport and mobility etc. do not feature as gender matters. Moreover there isn’t significant representation of women in student unions of any kind on campuses – they may exist as members but not in executive positions. There is a need to reconfigure gender violence based on equal accessibility.

Everything kept coming back to the question of data. While discussion is possible in abstraction, intervention of any kind (appealing to the government, quick-fix solutions by putting a group of people together etc.) needs concretisation to work with. This cannot be brought out by commissioned work, but can only be crowd-sourced… only that will bring into account people’s experience and subjective understanding of the city. All these disjointed issues must come together on one platform and seek universal solutions that might in effect mean safe and dignified lives for everyone.