June 22, 2015

Life Choices Dictated by Transit: Women and Mobility in India

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Alka Devi is a construction worker in Ranchi, India. Every day, she travels 30 km, hoping to be hired by local contractors. Such a long commute is in itself a burden, but if she takes transit, it would cost her Rs 1500 ($23) a month, when her monthly income is usually just Rs 2000 ($31). Instead, Alka walks 10-15 kms daily with her fellow workers, sometimes starting out as early as 4am after completing household chores. In Ranchi, across India, and all over the world, there are thousands of women like Alka Devi whose life choices and trips are dictated by the transit options available to them. Overcharging by drivers, harassment on the streets, and the danger of trafficking are all common problems faced by millions of women every day.

With slightly over one third of its total population living in urban areas, Indian cities are still grappling to find permanent solutions for quicker, cheaper and more effective forms of transit. One of the most natural resource rich areas of India, Jharkhand, was declared a state in 2000 and is one of ITDP’s operational offices towards the east of India. Jharkhand’s capital city of Ranchi has seen an explosion in terms of population and infrastructure.

Poor vegetable vendors walking along the road
Vegetable vendors walking along the road

Historically the people of Ranchi depended on walking, cycling, and cycle rickshaws for their mobility needs. Today, 80% trips in the city are still made by these modes. But without basic facilities for walking, cycling, and public transport, an increasing number of people are switching to the use of personal motor vehicles, leading to high levels of congestion and pollution. Since becoming the capital, Ranchi has experienced a lot of inward migration from the surrounding areas, primarily because of the lack of job opportunities and access to basic services in the rest of the state. These large numbers of residents and migrants in the city can not afford safe and good quality transit, but must rely on a semi-formal IPT (intermediate public transportation) system for their needs.

While this is a problem for all low income people, women in Ranchi are particularly underserved by Ranchi’s current transit. Their concerns regarding safety and accessibility are rarely addressed. National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data show high levels of violence against women in Jharkhand. Actual experiences of violence, along with the threat and fear of such, lead to women’s exclusion from public spaces. This threat of sexual harassment and assault prevents free movement, impinges upon their autonomy, and compromises their access to services and opportunities. Increasing women’s active participation in public transit or spaces are concerns that ITDP is working to deal with in partnership with various local organizations for women.

A lack of public spaces where women can actively participate in city life is the root of the problem.

Surveys conducted by ITDP in Ranchi are showing a clearer picture of women’s transit needs, and the problems they face. The surveys reveal many discrepancies between how men and women use transit in the city. For example, 83% women compared to only 45% men in Ranchi rely on walking and shared auto rickshaws or cars for their transit needs. The current IPT system is viewed as unsafe by over 90% of women surveyed, with many listing persistent staring, sexual harassment or lewd language as main, daily problems.

These issues affect women across income and societal groups. Nidhi Sharma is a twenty year old college student in Ranchi. Her freedom is limited by the fact that she has to be home before 7:30pm, when the city transport services shut down. Though owning a motorbike could give her more mobility, she avoids the risk involved in driving at night and would prefer the run-down semi formal auto service.

ITDP has worked in Ranchi with MHST (Mahila SEWA Housing Trust), a women’s rights based organization that works on low cost housing, sanitation and skill building, to identify daily wage women workers in the city. We integrated their numbers with existing semi-formal routes and have proposed a 24 hour formal public bus system that covers the main areas from where inward migration occurs. This system is also cheaper than existing autorickshaws and has established bus stops along with safer bus shelter designs. We are also working with an organization called Jagori to conduct safety audits in public spaces, to determine where women feel most insecure and at risk. These audits will be done manually or through an app which also gives us a chance to engage in a participatory process. These would help us to identify pockets in the city which are regarded as dangerous and help with interventions through city planning policies in the Master plan. ITDP also conducts community events in Ranchi to encourage cycling, walking and the participation of women in the public sphere. These steps will help women reclaim spaces in the city and assert their rights to the city.


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