Women’s safety has become a rallying cry in Delhi and its environs, where I live. Arguably, it’s become a talking point across India and in many parts of the world. Arvind Kejriwal’s election promise of 100% CCTV coverage reflects the widespread phenomena of the elite fencing themselves into gated havens, imagining they are keeping the unwanted at bay. Extend that thought and you have private cars ferrying kids to school when they should have taken the bus and girls being asked to restrict their choice of college because commuting is unsafe. Clearly, safety and the perception of safety is driving how people live and work, how productive they are and how they interact socially.
Well-designed quality infrastructure is non-negotiable
A large number of studies have shown us that it is quality infrastructure that will provide the base for making spaces safe and livable. A recent study that asked the question “What is the latest time in the day that you feel safe returning home alone?” in rural and urban spaces across India found that amenities and infrastructure had the largest impact on perceptions of safety.
It doesn’t matter whether it is urban or rural, basic infrastructure, including lighting, sanitation, electricity, streets, drainage and efficient public transport, is non-negotiable. More than any other interventions, including quick-fix technology, well-designed hard infrastructure for public use will empower everyone (not just women) and, over time, change attitudes too.
Technology is redundant if physical infrastructure is simply not there
The soft infrastructure that integrates tech can be a great complement, but fails when infrastructure is missing or badly designed. I’ll give you two examples.
#1 School bus alert systems
I get a set of SMSs everyday before the school bus arrives to pick and drop my kids. One of these gives me a time for arrival of the bus. The estimate is made by a computer based on an algorithm that factors in the route map, expected traffic at time of travel, etc. But the large number of uncertainties introduced by water logging, poor quality roads, mismanaged traffic etc mean that the estimated time is almost certainly off. Every afternoon, someone waits anxiously for a bus that announces it will arrive at 4:00PM when it actually shows up 8, 10, even 15 minutes later! A clear case of redundant technology.
#2 Women’s helplines
Asha, who worked as a nursing assistant for my grandmother a few weeks ago, pooh-poohs my suggestion for using the police helpline to report harassment, which she says she faces several times a day on her two-hour, 21-km long commute to work and back everyday. I would say she would not have hesitated to to dial the helpline if her daily commute was largely hassle-free, but as of now she has internalized the violence she faces and the technology appears redundant to her.
Let’s focus on the right things: Fix the pavements, lights, roads…just fix my city!
Personally, I don’t want the protection of my brothers and male friends when I get home late from work or a dinner appointment (As we know from the Nirbhaya case, this is no protection anyway). I want a lit pavement to walk on and the assurance of a late night bus service instead!
I don’t want a CCTV camera on every street corner of my city. Instead, I want clean, lit, accessible public spaces where families, young girls and boys, the elderly, basically everyone can access, frequent and make safe by their participation. The central park in Connaught Place (Delhi’s central business district) shuts down at sunset, while student theater groups who try to practice there have been asked to leave because they are a threat to security!
I don’t want a helpline that is flooded with requests and unable to help anyone. Instead, I want a safe city where the police can concentrate on those who really need their help because the majority of us are able to get on with our lives empowered by decent public amenities and infrastructure!