By Ila Ananya
Two days ago, the Railway Protection Force (RPF) announced in Chennai that it was going to launch a campaign to get feedback from women commuters to identify problem areas that if looked into, could possibly make them feel safer when they travelled by local trains. The campaign comes after the murder of S Swathi, an employee of Infosys, at the Nungambakkam station on the morning of 24 June. While the police only turned up two hours after she was murdered, there were also no CCTV cameras in the station – the culprit, Ram Kumar, was finally caught only on 2 July.
My grandmother’s favourite line when I leave home every morning is to tell me to be alert about my bag – hold it tight, she says – and be wary of men. I travel either by bus or auto, and she says I must always be suspicious; the women we spoke to about their daily train journeys said apologetically that they felt the same way, adding that they didn’t mean to offend. Lalitha Vikhram, for instance, used to travel from Mambalam to Paranur station in Chennai on her way to work at Infosys. “Everybody just makes you so conscious of what you look like, what you’re wearing, who is around you, who you’re sitting next to,” she says – “I think I have just learnt to never be at ease, but be on guard all the time.”
Vikhram says it’s like this: “If a woman is travelling alone, everybody watches her, especially if she’s wearing a sleeveless top or lipstick — everyone from teenage boys to 50-year-old men. I’ve seen women have their dupatta pulled by men who tease them, and nobody cares,” she says. There is nobody at these stations to complain to: Vikhram adds that she has only seen a few police officers at major stations, but nobody at the smaller ones that her train passed through. “I think it would help to just have more police around, and CCTVs, of course,” though it isn’t only Nungambakkam that doesn’t have cameras. She also points out that having vestibuled trains might make people feel safer, so that they can move between compartments if they’re uncomfortable.
To map out these problems, K Ashraf, the senior Divisional Security Commissioner (DSC) at Chennai said that the campaign has been launched with the help of college students from Loyola, Hindu, and Jain College, who are to approach at least 2,000 women commuters of all ages and backgrounds with a questionnaire about safety concerns.
“The questions aim to point out areas in which there is a security gap. We will ask women how often they’ve seen police officers at stations and on trains to see whether there is enough police presence, whether they know the helpline number they can call on and if they’ve used it, if they want a security app, or CCTV cameras installed, and at what timings they feel particularly unsafe,” he says.
But it’s strange that the campaign is only in Chennai, when women everywhere have stories to tell. Kalpita Deshmukh, who works at JSM Corporation in Mumbai, points out that it’s frustrating that nobody realises or cares that many women take the trains to travel. “A single train will have about two compartments reserved for women, that can seat about 20 people each, but there are obviously many, many more women travelling every day,” she says. Deshmukh travels from Chembur to Parel, and has to switch trains in the middle. She says that every train is incredibly packed in the mornings and evenings. Like Deshmukh, Nimisha Nair, also from Mumbai, says that just having more ‘ladies specials’ [trains only for women], or more coaches for women, would make her life a lot more comfortable.
Some of the women we spoke to would say in a slightly classist manner that even within women’s compartments, they are sometimes “uncomfortable” with the women begging, with those making a “fuss about everything,” and vendors on the train.
Gowri, who travels from Falaknuma to Lingampally, where she works as domestic help in three houses, says that some years ago, she would see the trains that ran exclusively for women running empty, but remembers how on some mornings, some compartments would only have women who worked as domestic help, and other coaches would have software employees. Gowri says she has seen men rush into women’s compartments, sit down, and then pretend they were in a hurry and didn’t realise where they had got on — “What’s the point of having women compartments if men come in and nobody says anything,” she says, irritated.
At night, Nair says, that men are allowed in women’s compartments. “It’s unsettling to be sitting in a compartment late at night and have a group of men come in too, even if they don’t say or do anything,” she says, and adds a little hesitantly, “I don’t mean to say all men are horrible, but there’s always discomfort.”
Deshmukh remembers a time when her friend called her in tears because she had been in a crowded general compartment where a man kept touching her, saying it was because the train was jerking — upon leaving the station everytime, but later he made a lewd comment and disappeared. She says that making the staff of train stations work like the ones in metros could make it safer and more comfortable — “We should have more staff to maintain discipline, have separate lines for women,” she says.
The RPF’s campaign, which began on 5 July, requires the participating colleges to submit their results by Friday. Hopefully action will be taken — not just in Chennai, but all over the country.
The Ladies Finger is a leading online feminist magazine.