NEETA LAL - Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s emphasis on Indian women’s rights and their safety at the party’s Chintan Shivir in Jaipur recently has once again pushed these topics into mainstream political discourse.

Such a political initiative is especially vital at a time when crimes against women are on a dramatic upward spiral, both in the capital and in the states. Each time a woman is savaged, the media is on fire, the TV burns with ferocious debates even as didactic activists berate politicians about women’s ‘lack of safety’.

But rather than view such episodes through the traditional (and self-serving) prism of the ‘big bad city’, they need critical examination in the wider social context of the neglect of public transport by the State, the citizens’ basic requirements of mobility and Delhi’s skewed urban planning and design. These aspects have received scant attention from the media and the policy makers. Last year, for instance, the city reported a whopping 572 cases of rape, far more than other cities of comparable size like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

Is there a structural flaw in Delhi? Do its skewed transport system, heavily motorised roads and design coalesce to encourage sexual crimes against women? Experts iterate that though the city possesses an excellent infrastructure for vehicles - with its beautiful and capacious roads - requirements of pedestrians and public transport users have been eschewed. Ergo, with the kamikaze traffic zipping on them, Delhi’s roads rank as one of the world’s most pedestrian-unfriendly. Swathes of the city are also devoid of basic lighting and thus shunned by pedestrians.

In other words, through its sheer design, Delhi discourages people on its streets, leading to greater possibilities of crime. On the contrary, research has proven that when a city designs its roads and public spaces using people (especially children and women pedestrians) as its pivots, crime automatically plummets.

What is required in Delhi therefore is not more development for vehicles but people. “A developed city,” goes a popular expression, “is not one where poor people own cars, but where rich people take public transport to work”. Amsterdam’s example is particularly illuminating here as even the Queen can be seen pedaling her bike on cycle tracks here!

What Delhi needs is an ecosystem where more people feel encouraged to come onto the streets. Addressing Delhi’s structural problems is thus a critical component of making it a safe metropolis.

As India shifts from being a poor, mostly agrarian nation to an urban, wealthier and modern one, more and more women are migrating from towns to cities to pursue their academic or professional ambitions. India’s urban population is expected to ratchet up to 285 million in 2001 to 820 million by 2051.

To cater to this exponentially growing demographic, Delhi will need a safe and world-class transport infrastructure. Though the Metro functions well, it makes for an expensive ride for the bourgeoisie. Taxis too, are pricey while auto rickshaws remain unreliable.

Such socio-economic dynamics have pushed an average Delhiite to board public buses, a distinctly unsafe option for women, especially at night. The neglect of non-motorised transport and an overt emphasis on high tech, expensive transport projects have thus contributed significantly to sexual crime in the city.

Urban productivity is linked inextricably to efficient transport. But Delhi seems benighted by unplanned development and pronounced infirmities in its transport system. The National Urban Transport Policy (NUTP), formulated in 2006, has tried to integrate land use and transport planning in cities, and bring about comprehensive improvements in urban infrastructure. However, little of all that is manifest in tangible terms. The policy’s intent to have wide roads in Delhi has only resulted in a gargantuan ownership of motor cars (more than any other Indian metro) without any concomitant benefits for the non-vehicle owners. Given Delhi’s primacy, its infrastructure needs to be urgently reoriented to accommodate a robust public transport system and secure public spaces for its citizens. Challenging ossified mindsets, more and more Indian women are claiming the public space as equal citizens. Without facilitating safe mobility and a secure environment for them, Asia’s third largest economy may never to able to realise its true potential.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist.

                                     –Khaleej Times