A panel discussion on "Making Bengaluru Women-friendly" was held on Saturday as part of ‘pEtE maatu’, a three-day festival. The panel discussion was organised by Citizen Matters and Just Femme, an online women’s magazine at the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), Palace Road, Bengaluru.
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It evoked mixed responses from the panelists as well as the audience. Opinions flew thick and fast. Conversation covered safety of public transport, sexual harassment, attitude of police and apathy of fellow citizens. Vasanti Hariprakash, a television journalist with NDTV, moderated it well giving all panelists and listeners ample time to express themselves interjecting with pertinent comments and questions.
C K Meena, journalist and author has found public transport ‘safe’ in the 32 years that she has been using it, as it evolved from BTS to BMTC. She finds that bus frequency and overall service has improved and suggests that they should be available round the clock.
"Let us not get paranoid about safety of women in Bangalore. Sometimes it is an issue of class – all murderers and rapists are not necessarily from low income backgrounds." She extorted women to be tough and stand up for themselves, for one can’t expect society to be full of saints. Mothers especially those who have experienced molestation, groping, pinching or lewd remarks must not overprotect their daughters too much or be shocked when their daughters go through the same experience.
Responding to Vasanthi’s question if Bengaluru is a safe city, Deepika Nagabhushan, a freelance photographer, felt "This city is not safe 24/7 unlike Mumbai where I spent a year". She shared her bad experiences while at a late night shoot of the Karaga festival in 2008.
Susheela Nair, a freelance writer on travel and heritage, seated in the audience, suggested that one should approach organisers of religious festivals for photography or reporting, based on her positive experience at such events.
Deepika insisted that women have a right to feel comfortable anywhere in Bengaluru irrespective of their dress or language. Siri Srinivas, who like Deepika, was also born and raised in Bangalore talked about how she has adjusted her travel habits within the city, to ensure safety. She uses only Volvo buses and is accompanied by friends if she leaves her office after 7 pm. "I am paranoid even if the conductor touches my hand while returning change." Asked if she was not overreacting, she said, a woman always knows when touch is offensive.
A resident of Bangalore since birth, Karnataka’s Director General of Police (Training) S T Ramesh admitted that he does not have a first hand experience of buses. But as a parent, he is aware of the challenges of women in Bangalore’s public spaces through his daughter. "I cannot declare Bangalore as safe or unsafe. But I know that no young girl can walk on Brigade Road without facing little, little humiliations." He talked about how the Karnataka Police have been undergoing gender sensitisation training. Around 13,000 police personnel have completed the programme till date. He felt such programmes should be extended to all government departments and society at large.
Geeta Menon from Stree Jagruti Samiti, seated in the audience, wryly commented that she and her fellow activists (from low income families) are yet to meet any women-friendly police officials. She requested Ramesh to review the efficacy of the programme, given that lakhs of taxpayer rupees is being on such initiatives.
Panelist Prakash Belawadi narrated his personal experiences and drew attention to how even young boys are subject to sexual harassment.. He also talked about how he had tried to overprotect his children, avoiding public transport and appointing a driver to ferry them around; only to find that the driver committed an offence with a close family member too.
Belawadi said comparisons between Bengaluru and Mumbai are not apt. Mumbai is a city while Bangalore is a small town with 83 villages trapped inside, with growth too fast to handle. He talked about how character of a neighbourhood changes with new money and landowners. When the wealthy acquire land in a neighbourhood, they dislike the presence of small stores or bus stops and fight to have them removed. "This disrupts the sense of community and security. Neighbourhood shops are often open late at night and are lit", he said.
Mithila Jha, a consultant with BMTC on urban planning and transport, feels fairly safe in this city. She finds separate seats for men and women in buses, fairly sexist. "Around a third of the seats in BMTC buses are reserved for women. But this does not exist in Volvo buses", she said.
Honnamma P, a young and outspoken member of the Domestic Workers Rights Union, lives in Venkatapura, near Koramangala. Walking less than 3 kms to work early mornings in Koramangala, she experiences harassment from strangers – pedestrians and bikers regularly. Even when this happens in broad daylight and crowded places, others on the road don’t interfere or support her. She believes that it would be worse in desolate and poorly lit places. "I tell those who irritate me to leave me alone". Most of the panellists and spectators appreciated Honnamma’s boldness and her approach to the issue.
When moderator Vasanthi asked her if she had reported instances of street sexual harassment to the police, Honnmma answered, "No, I have not done that myself. When my friend had complained about it, the police personnel responded insensitively. That discouraged me".
There was a 100 strong audience from across Bangalore in all age groups in the lively interaction. Manjula Sridhar raised the topic of the influence of films and asked why sexual harassment cannot be banned on the screen, like smoking was. Ashwin Mahesh made the case for a women’s vote and political voice to get women’s issues the attention it deserves.