January 29, 2013

Our Cities, Ourselves: An Open Letter to Mumbai City Administrators

SPhadkeDear Municipal Commissioner of Mumbai, Dear Chairperson of BEST, Dear Divisional Railway Manager Central Railway Mumbai, Dear Divisional Railway Manager Western Railway Mumbai, Dear Mayor of Mumbai,

In the wake of the Delhi gangrape, we have seen a spirited and complex discussion on policing and the provision of justice. This conversation might make it look like these concerns have little to do with your job but, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact your work is integral to making changes that may prevent more such criminal assaults in the future.

In our book Why Loiter? Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade and I argued women had the right to choose to take risks in public space without being censured for it. At the same time, while the risk of being in public space is in a broad sense chosen, the risks associated with the lack of infrastructure like good roads, street lighting and adequate public transport are not a matter of individual choice and imposed through decisions made by city planners. When we demanded women’s right to take risks in public, it was chosen risks we referred to (for instance the choice to walk on Marine Drive at midnight) not those risks imposed by the lack of infrastructural facilities (for instance the lack of public transport to take one home at midnight). It is the responsibility of city municipal corporations to provide citizens with every infrastructural facility possible to promote a democratic access to public space.

This democratic access I would argue involves inviting more people into public space. People are our best resource – the more people we have on the streets and in our buses and in our parks the safer they are.

In the spirit of promoting access here’s a preliminary list of things you can do to transform the city of Mumbai.

Public transport: Buses and Trains

I told someone today that the Delhi sexual assault could not have happened in a BEST bus because nobody can take a BEST bus out for a joyride – there are too many checks and controls. And no private bus in Mumbai can pretend to be anything. This is a good beginning but its not enough. The existing facilities on the buses and trans are stretched to breaking point.

What we need now is seriously good quality public transport – the kind that makes people leave their cars at home because the trains and buses are a BETTER, more efficacious way to commute. This will need money. Some of this money is being spent on the metro and monorail but the existing suburban railway network and the bus routes also need some overhauling.

  • For starters, can we have both the BEST buses and the suburban railway trains run 24 hours. This will make all the difference.
  • At night let buses stop in between stops for women to get off so they don’t have to walk long distances.
  • Other simple things that can transform access: Lights at the bus-stops. Seats at the bus-stops. Lots of lights at the railway stations.


To begin with this city has a terrible ratio of open space to population. We need much more open space and the work on the new development plans is a good place to lobby for this change. Our research on parks suggested that those parks which are the most accessible are the safest, like the Shivaji Park for instance. For here are some suggestions:

  • Take out all the fences. Have a low katta wall wide enough for people to sit on.  Widen the footpaths even if this means eating a little into the gardens. Create a sense that people can hang-out.
  • Encourage hawkers and have spaces for them at twenty feet intervals so the periphery is covered – there you have your eyes on the street and in the park. Hawkers both provide additional lighting in the evening and bring more people out on to the streets.
  • Encourage lovers in the park. You can make some basic rules if you like (for instance, clothes to be kept on at all times). Lovers are not interested in assaulting anyone but their presence is a deterrent to others. Do not get the police to police them this is a BAD idea.
  • Put some benches in the parks and advertise them as picnic spaces. Hire some cleaning crew and put in big bins and ask people to use them. Adding desirable people is a better strategy than trying to eliminate those you think undesirable.


We need them. You provide them. Keep them clean. Keep them well lit. Find the space for them. No more than 500 metres (yes that’s right – one every half kilometer). Open 24 hours. You got it. This will tell the world our world class cities expect women to be out there everyday, anywhere, anytime.

Shops, Restaurants and even Bars

Restaurants, shops and bars open late into the night populate the city and make it alive and therefore safer for everyone. Our research shows that places with people are places that women like. Then you will have more women and the space will not just be safer but you will be able to boast of your world class city where women walk freely at any time of the day or night.

  • We don’t need curfews.  Let them stay open as long as they like. The more people out on the streets at night the safer the streets. No really.
  • Here you actually don’t have to do anything. Just change the rules. It’s easy and it will pay rich dividends. If you are worried about drunk driving, have the police out with breathalyzers. This worked before. It will work now.

These are simple things. They are only the beginning and I hope more suggestions will be made in the comments section.

You may not care about women’s access to public space for fun. You may even be strictly anti-women’s-fun. You may not even care that women are sexually assaulted. But surely you care about the reputation of your aspirational world class city. Surely you care about international financial investment. Do these little things – I promise you will come out of it smelling likes roses. Other cities will imitate your actions. Journalists will sing your praises. Scholars of cities will write about your successful experiments.

You don’t need to change your ideology, just change our infrastructure.

Yours hopefully and on behalf of many women in this city,

Shilpa Phadke

9 comments to Our Cities, Ourselves: An Open Letter to Mumbai City Administrators

  • Vandana

    Shilpa – I salute thee…..

  • Mustansir Dalvi

    This is a fine list of demands.
    The pity is that all of them are self-evident but missing from our public spaces.

    Here are a couple of things:
    Bombay’s buses and trains are barrier-free in that they have always been door-less. The BEST buses have no doors and the railway trains have doors that are mostly (always) open. This provides the best safety there is. Neither do the buses have tinted windows, thank heavens.

    I am not sure how our transport culture will transform when we have metros or elevated rails which have doors that close by default between stations. How this will affect the perception and notions of safety has never been discussed. Let alone how the rush hour commuters will manage to fit themselves in. The elevated rail trains shall apparently have only three (or is it five?) dabbas. I wonder if that is worth the price to pay for this sort of infrastructure.

    A 24×7 service makes perfect sense.

    The business with the hawkers will never be resolved unless we invest in pedestrian streets, and vehicle free plaza in our cities. Hawkers should ideally find place in walking streets at right angles to any vehicular traffic movement, and not along them. This way they may become links between main arteries, encourage walking and achieve all the issues of safety that you mentioned. This way, they can be regulated better too.

    Finally I think the last sentence you made is, if you don’t mind my saying so, arse-backwards: ‘You don’t need to change your ideology, just change our infrastructure.’ I disagree.

    Mindsets need to be attacked, and with vengeance. Insensitivity in our public officials is the most unacceptable of all and should be lanced like boils at every opportunity. The minds of our public servants are a festering mess, as has been seen time and again in the statements that they make.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Thanks Vandana!

    Thanks for the thoughtful comment Mustansir.

    In regard to the point I made in regard to – just change our infrastructure. I feel like we have spent too much time trying to change people’s ideology and I think that if we could transform material infrastructure many things would change whether or not the people in these positions of authority changed their ideas or not.

  • And street vendors, whose presence late into the night ensures a certain degree of security for not only women but everyone.
    The other day in Bangalore, I noticed a police constable stopping by a cart from which a street vendor was dispensing fried rice and other fried (er… junk food, but I digress). Today I stopped and talked to the vendor and asked him about the ‘hafta’ expected of him.
    It transpires that he has to pay up several times during the day to several shifts of cops. He mentioned Rs 1,400 as the figure he had to shell out.
    Mind you this chap has a small cart, with a large aluminium vessel containing coloured rice which he sells mainly to the equally indigent crowd.
    His presence adds to the human presence on the none too well lit part of the street. He ought not to be harassed but encouraged to be there, lower his prices even if stripped of the bribe burden.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    I couldn’t agree with you more. In Mumbai they are actively going after the hawkers in the name of “cleaning up”. It’s so short-sighted – for safety as well as for the service they provide.

  • venugopal maddipati

    I would be curious to know more about signage and its relevance in India. How do visual symbols work in making public spaces legible? This can be particularly significant, for instance, when one talks about restrooms, drinking-water fountains etc. Also, are there ways of bringing greater awareness of the concerns relating to gender by the means of signage and images in public spaces? How much of an impact, for instance, would a large hoarding discussing some of the issues mentioned above, have on a public space? It might actually make a big difference (my two cents).

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Thanks Venugopal Maddipati.
    From our research on women’s access to public space, we found at railway stations signage contributed to a sense of control over one’s space and its likely that the experience is similar elsewhere as well.

    Advocacy always helps!! Any thoughts on what the hoarding might say??

  • venugopal maddipati

    I am sorry, I was away traveling — and am only now responding to your mail. In response to your question, I’ll say that people notice signs all the time. What matters is how much of what they see and learn they retain, over a period of time. Which can only mean that one thinks of signage on two different registers. Firstly, a large hoarding about gender issues, can make the space immediately next to it somewhat more amenable to use. In this first sense, the sign serves almost like a presence of a person. Not only do you watch the sign, the sign also watches you. In this first sense, I would even say that the larger the sign, the better it is for the space in question. However, what also matters is the longer, more lasting impression that a sign leaves, or at least one must aspire to make signs work in such a way that they leave a more lasting impression. And part of the problem in pursuing this second approach is that one does not entirely know whom one is addressing. And this is what makes it difficult arriving at an appropriate language of communication, be it through images or through text. This is why we need more studies to see how signs work in cities like Mumbai. One could suggest a very effective campaign through signage once one has a sense of how signage works traditionally in big city spaces.

  • Shilpa Phadke

    Venugopal Maddipati,
    What a fabulous idea – I love the “Not only do you watch the sign, the sign also watches you.” So far my sense of signage was more in terms of creating the familiar and providing road maps so people feel less lost. I had not thought of hoardings in this way as intervening in the dialogue in public space. But signs as participants in a gendered conversation. I like! Very much!

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