How India is taking steps to make its cities safer for women

As the digital economy flourishes, technology companies from start-ups to established heavyweights are clustering in key locations.

May 04, 2017

As violence against women in India continues to make headlines, lawmakers and local developers are responding to pressures for better city infrastructure.

The country’s rapid, often unplanned urbanization has put heavy pressure on many of its cities to house and transport millions of inhabitants. Overcrowded public transport and unlit night-time streets are high-risk areas for crimes against women, with 80 percent reporting harassment in public spaces.

“Deficient infrastructure and poor planning have added to the challenges around women’s safety,” says A Shankar, National Director, Strategic Consulting, JLL India.

With many cities lacking in the infrastructure and policy to prevent or detect such crimes, a wave of urban regeneration programs are starting the process of creating safer public spaces.

Smart, safer cities

Notorious for high rates of sexual assault in its vast urban sprawl, Delhi is in the midst of a women’s safety initiative that includes improving street lighting, installing surveillance cameras on public transport and at stations, and introducing all-female police forces.

City authorities in Pune, Delhi and Mumbai are investing in solutions such as women-only buses and auto-rickshaws and government safety apps.

“Transport connectivity is a key problem for safety, especially over the ‘last-mile’ from a station back home,” says Trivita Roy, Associate Director of Research, JLL India. “There are CCTV camera systems in many cities but it hasn’t always been properly monitored, so offenders are not afraid of being caught.”

Now, many cities, including Delhi, are rolling out GPS tracking for auto-rickshaws and identity verification for their drivers, and in Jaipur, a new surveillance system streams live video to law enforcement, with records are kept for a month. “Once criminal begin to realize they can be traced and to have fear of the law, problems can come under control,” Roy says.

Small town planning

While India’s economic hubs are facing the most pressure to improve women’s safety, its smaller cities are starting to address the issue.

Launched in 2015, the government-led Smart Cities is an urban renewal initiative to improve the technological and living standards of over 100 of India’s mid-sized cities, which are often located in the outskirts of the country’s busiest metropolises.

“The smart city developments target safety and security,” says Shankar. Proposed reforms include women-only prepaid car services, smartphone apps that rate the safety of surroundings and connect to police, as well as an overhaul of street lighting and surveillance systems.

Upcoming townships have been built from the ground-up to be smart and connected. Wave City is a 4500-acre township with a central command center, constant CCTV surveillance and fiber optic internet.

“In these planned townships, developers are building properties around the metro stations to reduce the problem of last-mile connectivity,” Shankar says. “Many of the developments are driven by buyer demand – people want to be in walking distance of their home, their office, shops, restaurants, transport infrastructure.”

Such mixed-used communities, with proximity to workplaces, shopping and schools, can help working women – who are also often caregivers and homemakers – feel more comfortable travelling alone.

“Cities are bucking up and within the next five, ten years, they will see the advancement in infrastructure needed – last-mile connectivity, street lighting, GPS tracking, CCTV, and more transparent legal and policing systems,” Roy says.

Awareness for the next generation

While cities embark on the process of redesigning public spaces to reduce the opportunity for violence and harassment, ingrained cultural attitudes are shifting more slowly.

In Delhi, crimes against women are still increasing – with low conviction rates – while the high-profile New Year’s Eve mass molestation in Bangalore took place in an area that checked off on public safety – it was active, well-lit, covered with CCTV, and patrolled by 1500 police officers.

“The problem is, India is a patriarchal society,” Roy says. “People are not aware of their wrongdoing and even policemen may not understand the gravity of the crime. The entire social framework means that many women don’t report assault and if they do, it is not followed up upon.”

Cities including those part of the Smart Cities program are introducing women’s safety training for police officers and values education for schoolchildren. “Maybe next generation, these values will come into play,” Roy says.

As India’s cities become of increasing interest to overseas corporations and global industries, women’s safety may become an economic as well as social issue.

“India’s cities are competing against each other for foreign investment,” Shankar says. “As a country, India would not lose foreign investment, but a city seen to be lagging on the issue of women’s safety would become less desirable for a corporate base.”

Cities of the throes of a safety overhaul could look to Chennai for hope: In 2000, the capital of Tamil Nadu had India’s highest crime rate against women, and last year it was named the safest city in India.

“When these changes in the law and public planning come together, cities will see a lot of changes in infrastructure focused on women’s safety,” Roy concludes. “But it will take time.”