The metro, as I have now come to observe, is a “public” transport system for the elite. How accessible is it really for the hundreds of working women who cannot afford its fares or even understand its rules?
I grew up in Kolkata, graduated from one of the best private schools in the city and later had the opportunity of studying at Delhi University. The prospect of moving to Delhi was not something I was daunted by. As a woman with the privileges and the leisure to loiter, I quickly familiarised myself with the spider’s web that is the Delhi metro. For the new girl in the city, it was fascinating how convenient, safe, cheap and time efficient the metro rail system was.
As a young woman living alone in one of the biggest metropolises in the country, the instances of gender discrimination and prejudice that I have faced covered the gamut from subtle condescension and rampant mansplaining to violations of my personal space and sexual harassment. However, in the time I spent in this city, I have come to realise that the ignominy and indignation of gender discrimination that I have faced is very different from the experiences of many other urban women who do not share the privileges of being born in the same socio economic class as mine.
After 5 years of being a resident of the capital city, I realised that the Delhi metro is one of among the many sites of such discrimination. The practice is covert and can be overlooked easily, but if one pays attention, the elitism in this public transport system comes to the forefront. More often than I realised, my actions have been complicit in making this an exclusive elite service.
I regularly depend on the metro rail in Delhi for navigating across the city. My domestic help, Deepti, on the other hand, relies on autos and buses to commute from South Delhi to her brother’s house in Noida. “I will not know how to find my way. Plus I have 3 children…I don’t think its safe.” she says. This was appalling to me because, firstly, I learnt my way around the city using metro stations as landmarks. Secondly, the metro with all its surveillance paraphernalia – the CCTV security, baggage scanner and the frisking security guards – modified my lexicon to believe surveillance and safety are synonyms. On late nights, when the Delhi metro does not ply, I choose to avail of online cab services, pay late night surge fare, share cab details with my close friends and let my parents know once I have reached. The threat of sexual violence, and the consequent need to be accountable for my own safety is something I have internalised. My financial security allows me to avail this security that GPS enabled cabs provide, which I have been led to believe would be compromised in taking a public transport vehicle such as a bus or an auto.
The metro, as I have now come to observe, is a ‘public’ transport system for the elite. The increments on what was a nominal metro fare, makes it prohibitive for a large section of the public to avail of this service. Geeta di, the care taker of the building that my friend lives in, admits sparing 2 hours to go to the New Delhi railway station. “I can carry all my luggage in the bus…there is a direct bus that goes to the railway…why would I take the metro?!” I argued it’s an easier and a more time efficient system. She declared that the metro is “complex” and added “my daughters’ use the metro when they go to college…they can read English and find their way among so many metro lines…besides, taking the metro every day is expensive. They usually take the bus…”
Buses in Delhi have been deemed unsafe (for those who can avoid it) since the heinous December 16th rape case in 2012. Autos have not been tainted with such ill repute, but then, they do not exempt their passengers from their surged “night” charges. Deepti, Geeta Di, and her daughter Kamala are all migrant labourers residing in the slums of Tughlaqabad in South Delhi. They work as domestic helpers in the nearby localities of CR Park, Govindpuri and Kalkaji. I wonder what this lack of affordable “safe” public transport systems implies for these women, who do not have the luxury of paying surge fares to take a safe trip at night. Do they risk assault and harassment and take the bus? Do they bear the “surge” fares of autos? Or should they avoid travelling at night altogether?
Drawing from my conversations with these women, I couldn’t help but pay close attention to the attitudes of my fellow women passengers towards those who did not look like their socio economic equals. Geeta di’s daughter Kamala, recalls the discomfort on boarding a compartment where “everyone looked so hi-fi.” Geeta di wondered if her daughters were disbarred from boarding the train, however Kamala quickly clarified that “they cannot stop me as long as I have the metro card” although, she did recall an incident where she was travelling with a friend and was admonished for sitting on the metro floor; “Where will people stand if you sit in the middle like this?” she was told. Kamala contended, “We have seen other didis sit on the metro floor…I thought it was alright.”
I cannot negate my role in contributing to these experiences as a passive bystander. As a person who avails the metro regularly, I have often conveniently been oblivious to these acts of discrimination.
The ability to travel in an alien city empowered me as a woman. The Delhi metro aided this independence. As a young woman in the city, I am often faced with concern from well-meaning neighbours advising on not travelling late at night, hostel wardens making stern character judgements about women students returning past their ‘curfew’ time, and security guards at public parks lamenting the impunity of women loitering late at night in parks. Their kindness, aimed at preserving the ‘honour and chastity’ of women, and upholding the common rhetoric of ‘apni safety toh apne haath mein hai’.
The famous scene from Jab We Met, the recent promotion of the safety feature in the Uber app, that allows friends and family to ‘track’ the ride in real time all bear a testament to this much coveted ‘safety’. Being a woman of privilege, I have been able to disregard such concerns, as also been able to ensure my own safety. I seldom realise that in my acceptance of the increase of metro charges, the developing of more metro lines, I have played a decisive role in appropriating this public transport for myself and my socio economic equals. Consequently, I have been guilty of limiting the independence of an entire section of urban women, and appropriating safety all for myself.
Image via Pexels
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A sociologist, researcher and writer based out of New Delhi.
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