Women’s security, safety deeply impacted by urban poor’s resettlement to peripheral Ahmedabad

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A woman resident at the bus and shuttle-rickshaw stop on the main cross-roads between Sadbhavna Nagar and VGG Nagar

By Darshini Mahadevia, Renu Desai, Shachi Sanghvi, Suchita Vyas and Vaishali Parmar*

There is a growing recognition that large number of women in Indian cities experience violence inside and outside their homes and feel insecure about being in public spaces. Patriarchal norms and sexist attitudes towards women are the main underlying reasons for these experiences. However, outside the home, the nature of urban development and governance, such as housing location and type, provision of adequate infrastructure and services, provision of adequate and safe transport, and responsive policing also play an important role in creating safe and unsafe spaces for women in the city, which in turn expands or constrains their access to resources and opportunities. Gender also intersects with class and other social identities such as caste, ethnicity and religion, to shape women’s urban experiences. In Ahmedabad, resettlement of the urban poor from central city neighbourhoods to peripheral areas like Vatwa has deeply impacted women’s security and safety.

Women residents of the Vatwa resettlement sites experience a sense of insecurity and fear in public spaces in and around the sites as well as in their homes. Many have personally experienced harassment in these public spaces and while traveling to and from these sites. This impacts their mobility in the locality and to other places in the city. Numerous factors related to urban planning and governance directly and indirectly contribute to creating insecurity among women and shaping a built environment conducive for violence against women.

UNSAFE MOBILITY DUE TO DISTANT RESETTLEMENT AND INADEQUATE PUBLIC TRANSPORT

policyThe distant resettlement combined with the low frequency of buses, delays in the arrival of the bus, and in some cases, lack of direct connectivity to desired destinations increases travel time. Women who travel to central city areas mentioned that the bus journey (excluding the waiting time) took them an hour each way. Although shuttle rickshaws are often more frequent, drivers want to maximize their number of passengers and therefore, often wait to get more passengers, thus increasing travel time. Women pointed out that at times they have to wait for up to 30 minutes before the shuttle-rickshaw driver will start on his route. Due to the long travel time, the return journeys from work at the end of the day are often suffused with a sense of anxiety and fear for women.

“Poverty, Inequality and Violence in Indian Cities: Towards Inclusive Policies and Planning,” a three-year research project (2013-16) undertaken by Centre for Urban Equity (CUE), CEPT University in Ahmedabad and Guwahati, and Institute for Human Development in Delhi and Patna, is funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada and Department of International Development (DFID), UK, under the global programme Safe and Inclusive Cities (SAIC). The research analyzes the pathways through which exclusionary urban planning and governance leads to different types of violence on the poor and by the poor in Indian cities.

The CUE research takes an expansive approach to violence, examining structural or indirect violence (material deprivation, inequality, exclusion), direct violence (direct infliction of physical or psychological harm), overt conflict and its links to violence and different types of crime. We note that not all types of violence are considered as crime (for example, violence by the state), and not all types of crime are considered as violence (for example, theft).

In Ahmedabad, the largest city of Gujarat state, the research focuses on two poor localities: Bombay Hotel, an informal commercial subdivision located on the city’s southern periphery and inhabited by Muslims, and the public housing sites at Vatwa on the city’s south-eastern periphery used for resettling slum dwellers displaced by urban projects.

They experience insecurity around their own safety during the journey as well as while walking back to their home from the bus or shuttle stop.

“I feel scared, when will the vehicle come, when will I reach home… will someone catch hold of me, what will someone do [to me]?”

Women, particularly younger women, experience and fear sexual harassment in the buses and shuttle rickshaws due to their overcrowding. Men often take advantage of the crowd to touch girls and young women. Many women prefer to take the shuttle rickshaw because it gives them a seat (instead of being forced to stand in a bus), however, this does not ensure safety from harassment. With four passengers in the front and four at the back, male co-passengers often misbehave by touching them or staring at them. In many instances, the drivers also misbehave by playing loud music, especially if one or two women are the only passengers. They stare at the women through the rearview mirror and drive faster. This kind of harassment is often by drivers intoxicated with alcohol or drugs. In such instances, women also fear that their rash driving would lead to road accidents.

UNSAFE MOBILITY DUE TO INADEQUATE ROAD INFRASTRUCTURE ALONG TRAVEL ROUTES

Non-functioning street lights on certain routes between their workplaces and home (for example, the Bibi Talav route) have added to women’s sense of insecurity on their return journeys home by shuttle rickshaws.

Many girls go to schools by cycle 2-3 kms away from the resettlement sites. In focus group discussions with them, they pointed to their fear of road accidents due to potholes on the roads in the area, and in the winters, lack of street lights as they go to school early in the morning when it is still dark.

“We have to go on cycles to school because there is no shuttle or bus that goes there. The roads do not have street lights and there is a danger that a vehicle coming from the opposite side may not be able to see us and might collide with us”

Many also go on cycle for tuition classes in the late afternoon; during the winters it gets dark when they return home, again leading to fear of accidents due to potholes and lack of street lights.

HOSTILE URBAN ENVIRONMENTS IN AND AROUND THE RESETTLEMENT SITES

Women move in and around the locality by foot to access bus-stops and shuttle-stops. They also walk to buy groceries from nearby vendors and shops. Although jobs are hard to find nearby, some women have managed to do so and walk to their workplaces (nearby middle-class housing societies or the nearby GIDC industrial estate). Children walk to the nearby municipal school and older girls walk or cycle to schools in an approximately 3-km radius. Women also move about and inhabit public spaces in and around the resettlement site for leisure. The urban environments they traverse on foot and cycle are hostile in numerous ways, leading to different types of violence, risks and insecurities for them.

Most women expressed a fear of sexual harassment and theft in and around the resettlement sites. While some women feel safe in the daytime, this is not the case with all women. Many do not feel safe waiting at the bus-stops and shuttle-stops, particularly those at the main cross-roads on the Narol-Vatwa Road between VGG Nagar and Sadbhavna Nagar. Many do not feel safe walking on this road as there have been many robberies. (This area has become relatively safer after a police outpost or chowky built at the cross-roads started functioning towards 2015-end). Many of the internal roads of the resettlement sites, especially in Sadbhavna Nagar, are also perceived as unsafe. The gate of Sadbhavna Nagar that opens at the cross-roads was identified as a particularly unsafe spot by women. The feeling of insecurity is greater after dark and many women do not step out of their home after dark. A combination of three factors contribute to these insecurities and the experiences of violence that women have faced.

Anti-Social Activities

Alcohol and gambling dens and consumption of drugs like charas, ganja and “powder” make women feel uncomfortable and unsafe. The presence of men intoxicated on alcohol and drugs in public spaces creates a feeling of insecurity. Some of them also rob people, including at knife-point. Some engage in robbery to finance their drug habits.

One woman resident explained that she has told her employer that she will come as early as he wants but she will return from work early in the evening as drunk men and men taking drugs hang about the locality. School-going girls in our focus group discussions unanimously expressed a fear of harassment at the resettlement sites, while pointing out that they had never felt fear of harassment in their previous localities since those areas were populated with  diverse types of people and activities, even late into the night.

Robberies as well as the illicit activities have links to urban planning and governance. The resettlement approach has led to constrained mobility and stressed livelihoods. The former has resulting in many young men not being able to go to work and instead they hang about the locality idly, getting involved in illicit activities and anti-social behaviours and harassing women passing by. Stressed livelihoods have also pushed men towards illicit activities to make money. Meanwhile, the resettlement allotment process led to social disruptions, which has led to lack of internal social control, which facilitates such activities and behaviours. The allotment process has also brought different goons into the same locality, leading to power tussles between them, often around illicit businesses, which are settled in violent ways, creating a general sense of insecurity and fear in public spaces.

The resettlement allotment process has also led to many vacant flats at the resettlement sites and subsequently, poor governance of this vacant housing stock has led to many flats being taken over for carrying on illicit activities (note that many vacant flats have also been occupied by poor families, and thus the poor governance of this housing stock has also facilitated much-needed access to shelter in a context of an urban planning regime that does not provide adequate and affordable housing for the urban poor).

Most of the physical structures built in the open spaces of the sites for social amenities have also been left vacant by the AMC, and many of these are also intermittently occupied for illicit activities. (See Policy Brief 3 and 4 for further elaboration on the above)

Desolate Areas and Streets

Desolate areas in and around the resettlement sites have created an unsafe environment. Some women  pointed to the bus-stops and shuttle-stops at the main cross-roads between VGG Nagar and Sadbhavna Nagar as being desolate after 10 pm. Vacant undeveloped plots of land at two corners of this cross-roads contributed to its desolation. This cross-roads was also contrasted with the other end of the main road which has a vendors’ bazaar and was felt to be relatively safer. (See Policy Brief 2, 3 and 4 for further elaboration on the above)

Infrastructural Deficiencies

Infrastructural deficiencies have created a conducive environment for robberies and violence against women, and also impact women’s perceptions of safety in the area. Lack of street lights, intermittently functioning street lights or dim street lights on the main roads (including the above-mentioned cross-roads where bus-stops and shuttle-stops are located) as well as inside the resettlement sites makes many women feel unsafe. Women feel that in the dark there is a greater likelihood of being assaulted and harassed.

The Home as an Unsafe Space

Parents also felt that it was not safe to leave children, especially girls and young unmarried women, alone at home. They contrasted this with the safety of their homes in their previous localities. Many referred to an incident in which a 3-year-old girl had been raped in one of the flats in KBT Nagar. This unsafe environment in the home was attributed to people not knowing their neighbours and single men having some to live in their building as tenants. This is directly linked to the resettlement allotment process which has created social disruptions. It is also directly linked to the resettlement approach that has involved distant resettlement which is not viable or desirable to many, leading them to rent their allotted flat while moving back to the central city areas.

POOR GOVERNANCE OF SECURITY

Women expressed concerns about the police abetting those involved in wrongdoing. Failure of the police to crack down on illicit activities and goons, and their collusion with many illicit activities, was seen as allowing these to thrive at the resettlement sites. Robberies were also seen as common since the police did not take adequate action on them. Women expressed concern regarding the unavailability of any women police so that they can talk to the police properly. Some mentioned that the police use foul language if they go to complain. Women’s complaints of domestic violence were also often ignored by the police. (in December 2015, at the tail-end of the research, the police chowky built at the corner of Sadbhavna Nagar had begun to function for longer hours and several residents pointed out that the police had become more vigilant and had arrested a number of goons).

Stressed livelihoods and social disruptions due to the resettlement approach and process have also created a situation where it is hugely challenging to establish any kind of legitimate and effective formal governance structure (such as resident associations) or even informal governance structure which could play a role in fostering a more secure environment for women in and around the resettlement sites.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

Addressing women’s safety-related issues at the resettlement sites requires policy responses at two levels, city-level and locality-level.

City-level policies:

  • Displacement to be minimized and development decisions made after thorough consideration of the displacement it would cause and the cascading risks it would pose to the lives of women.
  • Provision of appropriate, affordable and safe public transport to create safe mobilities for women in the city.
  • Develop affordable and regulated systems of Intermediate Public Transport (IPT) in the city so that the last-leg connectivity from the public transport routes can be provided safely.

Locality-level policies:

  • Improved roads and allied road infrastructures such as street-lighting.
  • Create a partnership between the AMC, police and residents to create well-maintained and safe streets and other open spaces in and around the locality. Participation of women in these processes and partnerships is important.
  • Accessible police services and responsive policing that prioritizes the provision of security, particularly for the most vulnerable including women.
  • NGOs can play an important role in supporting women to become independent and capable of dealing with the violence they face. The state should actively support this work by NGOs.

Research Methods

  • Locality mapping and community profiling
  • Ethnography + ad-hoc conversations
  • 11 Focus Group Discussions (FGDs)
  • 7 unstructured group discussions (GDs)
  • 35 individual interviews (leaders, water operators)
  • Total 51 men and 53 women participated in the FGDs, GDs and interviews.
  • Interviews with political leaders & municipal officials
  • Master’s thesis: 10 FGDs (46 women) on transport and women’s safety.

*This is the firth Policy Brief in the series prepared by the research team of the Centre for Urban Equity (CUE), CEPT University, Ahmedabad, on “Safe and Inclusive Cities – Poverty, Inequity and Violence in Indian Cities: Towards Inclusive Policies and Planning”.

Courtesy: CUE, CEPT University, Ahmedabad

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