Mumbai’s Once Famous Public Transport System Has Failed Women & Those Disabled

Mumbai's public transport system has deteriorated so much in terms of the infrastructure and the crowds, and regular commutes have become a nightmare for women and for those with a disability!

Mumbai’s public transport system has deteriorated so much in terms of the infrastructure and the crowds, and regular commutes have become a nightmare for women and for those with a disability!

A smart girl from my institution who grappled with a disability, would have liked to pursue further studies and go out to work, but the buses on the routes she required had been decimated. Trains were not accessible to her as the infrastructure was not inclusive, with no ramps at most of the places. It was not possible for her to climb the long flight of stairs, and boarding the train too was risky due to the gap between the platform and the train. With no means of economic empowerment, she found her life to be dependent, unless her middle class parents were willing to shell huge amounts on private taxis.

In short, she had no economic mobility in a country not very considerate of these things.

Women’s right to transport matters

It will help not only in the economic empowerment of women but also lead to progress towards achieving sustainable development goals.

To fulfil that it is necessary for women to have a safe and affordable access to the commercial centres in the city.

Mumbai, the financial capital of India had a mode of public transport which placed it at a higher positive rank in terms of safety for women, less pollution, and traffic control, in comparison to various other cities around the world despite being a highly populated one. It had the overcrowded yet well connected local trains and an affordable intra-city transport, the BEST buses.

Since Mumbai and Maharashtra in general have a massive working women’s population, we are able to witness overcrowded ladies compartments during peak hours where peoples do not have place to stand let alone sit for journeys spanning from 90 to 120 minutes. With further growth in population, migration and the decrease in fleet of the BEST buses, not many changes have been made in the infrastructure to accommodate the rising number of women. The 16 long years wait for more ladies coaches to be added has been neglected by railway authorities.

Quoting from this report Rajiv Singhal, member of the Divisional Railway Users’ Consultative Committee, said, “Women passengers should get a minimum of 33% of the total space on local trains. On a train with 12 coaches, four coaches should be completely set apart for women. If the Railways follow this rule, then they need not run special ladies’ trains.” Now, two and half coaches are reserved for women on the Western Line, while three coaches are reserved on the Central line. Mr. Singhal says, “There are many women who suffer from health issues, and carry their children along with them. Sometimes they are not able to get on the crowded trains and meet with accidents.”

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Important junctions like Kurla, Dadar and Andheri station have a very messy and almost dangerous system of crowd management. Kurla, being the worst out of the three. The new staircase built on Kurla station to ease the problem was even smaller and narrower than the other 3 overcrowded ones. It has barely managed to help the situation. This makes one think if the Central government under whom the railways function are serious about the plight of the ordinary citizens despite the Elphistone incident having happened. The RPF has repeatedly written letters to them warning of a serious repetition of that situation in Andheri.

Many accidents had taken place in the past due to the gap between the railway platform and the train. It was dangerous for women travelling with children and others during the crowded peak hours , as a slight slip of the foot could ensure their falling in it.

A 22 year old actor Praful Bhalerao who used to work with a call centre died last year after slipping into the platform gap. A young boy’s dreams and aspirations were cut short on his way to work. Recently, 4 years later, a few measures have been taken to fill the gap in a few stations, but not before many lives were lost.

Pregnant, disabled, elderly? Too bad for you!

The plight of pregnant women and disabled people is bad. Since this mode of transport is mostly used by the people belonging to the lower and middle class groups, those women cannot afford to leave their jobs during their pregnancies. The impact of a physically and mentally stressful travelling experience coupled with street sexual harassment on platforms can adversely affect their work which most don’t let happen to keep their jobs safe.

A call for humane treatment is ridiculed away as expecting a special privilege, when a demand for equal coaches is made, since the number of men will always be more. This is a classic case of women’s needs being dismissed despite them paying the same cost for their travel as men.

The same reasons are cited when demands are made for allotting proper facilities for disabled people in the local trains. Earlier BEST buses were used by them but with the decrease in their service, people do not have other affordable options in place. They have to think multiple times about their financial constraints before stepping out of the house. The existing models of buses too have not been upgraded .

Where does this leave them? Their lives are hugely disrupted as seen here.

Women have less disposable income compared to men, and a significant part of it is used by them for travelling. Without economic mobility they cannot generate it. This wasn’t the case earlier when the BEST buses were operating properly. Now, a person after waiting at the bus stop for an hour, has to simply hail a cab or auto because of the uncertain frequency of buses, and the decreased routes.

As per this report, BEST buses contribute to only 1% of the traffic in the city, whereas 60%  is contributed by private vehicles. The separate pathways which were made for ensuring that a 45 minutes journey would be completed in 15 minutes by the buses too have been scrapped away slowly now.

A twitter hashtag #SaveBEST narrated the experiences of various commuters on the BEST buses. They ensured a sense of security for women during the late hours of night. Others spoke about how as children they could safely travel alone through those buses.

At night in the ladies first class compartments in the local trains, the RPF is constantly absent; in rare cases they make an appearance despite a rule that they have to be mandatorily present in ladies compartments after 9 p.m. Many cases of theft, assault, and unauthorised crossing by men takes place.

Last year on Govandi station, one girl had registered a formal complaint with the RPF when she was threatened and almost assaulted by one man, against whom she had protested when he tried pushing her and crossing through the ladies compartment to go to the other side, despite an empty gents compartment just next door. Most of the men find crossing through the ladies first class compartments and intimidating the women in them to be a pleasure seeking activity.

The RPF did not respond to her complaint or bother to take further action. The Mumbai police whom she had approached had asked her to go to the RPF, while they asked her to go to the police, and this never ending cycle continued.

Autos & taxis are no better!

Auto rickshaws are specifically notorious for rejecting customers according to the driver’s whims. Women may not always feel safe in them, senior citizens and others too cannot always rely on them because of the factors of rejection, metre tampering, taking longer routes than necessary etc. At certain places in Mumbai, you might stand for an hour and still not have a single auto-driver willing to take you to your destination. The Olas/Ubers and other private taxi services hike their rates during the peak hours when the public needs them the most. A majority cannot afford them.

The Metro in Mumbai too has a high fare which is heavy on people’s pockets. It does not manage to connect all part of the city, the way BEST buses or trains do.

Women MPs caution other women against using shared auto and taxis, unaware that they don’t have many choices and have to constantly strategize before stepping out of the house.

No response from the police to calls of help

The Mumbai police has a traffic helpline number 8454999999, which you can contact whenever an auto driver rejects a ride and for various other incidents. You are supposed to receive a complaint number after that.

This is what happened last week. My auto driver was driving dangerously and looked completely drugged. Since it was night, I sent a message on WhatsApp to that number as no one responded to the calls. Despite getting a read receipt, I got no complaint number even after requesting for it for a week.

In the month of December, I had called on the police helpline number 100 and complained about an auto-driver who had threatened me, demanding that I get out of the auto before we reached the destination. I was given a complaint number, and asked to go to a police station faraway where I was told they had been notified. A few days later when I went to check the progress, the officers in the control room and the ones in the police station were clueless, and expected the other side to solve the problem.

This is a common situation most of the times, where the authorities make you run from pillar to post instead of helping you.

We need better infrastructure, not just ‘Mumbai culture’

Mumbai still has a culture in which women can move safely in crowded places to a great extent. However when there are growing crowds and an increase in street harassment by people who think nothing of objectifying women, this culture gets threatened, and cannot assure the safety of women. This can be seen from the number of criminal cases being registered with railway protection force.

With changing times, critical improvements should be brought in the infrastructure as we cannot simply rely on ‘culture’ to keep women safe. The media should check from time to time whether the authorities and their helplines are responding to women’s complaints.

Companies who organise CSIR initiatives should have a look at how their employees travel.

This Women’s Day, on 8th March 2019, when we will have everyone raining discounts and organising events, hopefully we will have people talking about these problems of those with limited mobility, and the lower middle class and lower class women, who lack the knowledge of English to air their unheard grievances.

Image source: YouTube

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