Bengaluru: New Year’s Eve in Bengaluru is a story of two streets. Busy and brightly lit MG Road in the heart of the city, where media reports say several women were groped by an unruly mob, and a deserted lane off 5th Main Road in Kammanahalli, where two men assaulted a woman outside her home.
Both incidents illustrate just how unsafe Indian cities are. But conflating the two — city planners, architects and women’s rights activists say — risks making our public spaces less safe for everyone. “What is safety?” asks Geetha Nambisan, director of Jagori, a women’s rights organisation. “In our surveys, women describe it as the freedom to live a full life unencumbered by fear. The response of officials is the opposite — to push women into their homes.”
Learning the right lessons from Bengaluru’s night of horror, these experts feel, is of particular importance because India is still on the road to urbanisation, and new metropolises like Amaravati in Andhra Pradesh and Naya Raipur in Chhattisgarh should not repeat the mistakes made in cities like New Delhi, Gurgaon and Noida.
The MG Road incident
The ‘mass molestations’ on MG Road are a result of a deep-seated misconception that women do not belong in public spaces, says Shilpa Phadke, a sociologist at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and co-author of Why Loiter, an inter-disciplinary study on women and public space.
“In our surveys, women cite the presence of other women as the biggest factor when evaluating the safety of a public space,” Phadke says. “Telling women to stay home means a less inclusive city for those who do venture out, triggering a cycle that is hard to break.”
This brings us to Kammanahalli, a once sleepy residential neighbourhood now transformed into a patchwork of restaurants, apartment complexes and bungalows by the city’s IT boom. Here, surveillance footage revealed an incident involving two men assaulting a woman on a deserted lane hemmed in by high fences.
“We have built high walls around residential areas in the name of protection,” says Shilpa Ranade, an architect who collaborated with Phadke on Why Loiter. “But this has turned our streets into unsafe, isolated spaces.”
Architects like Ranade explain that fenced spaces often feel less safe than open areas. “Mumbai’s Shivaji Maidan has no fences or timings, but it is still a safe space that attracts a mixed crowd,” she says. “The Oval Maidan is less welcoming because it is enclosed by a tall fence.”