Reuters

A month after a gruesome gang rape, New Delhi takes aim at the lowest-hanging fruit: Improving public spaces.

NEW DELHI, India --- As night falls, the streets surrounding the Jama Masjid are still buzzing. The heart of Old Delhi, one of the several bustling neighborhoods in the city’s center, is filled with bicycle rickshaws, hawkers, pedestrians and dawdlers.

Walk a couple blocks west and hop the metro a few stops south, and the scene is entirely different. The steps off the metro are nearly pitch black. The long streets here, as the city begins to bleed into its suburbs, are nearly empty. And unlike Old Delhi, almost all of the pedestrians are men.

This is the stretch of southwest Delhi where, on December 16, a 23-year-old medical student was horrifyingly and ultimately fatally gang raped. At the protests that followed, activists have seized the moment to highlight the structural ways India's cities are failing women.

Dark, empty streets make it almost impossible for a single woman to walk around at night. Few public spaces cater to women. And, perhaps most importantly, women who ride public transportation face constant intimidation and threats. In a recent survey, 80 percent of New Delhi women reported being harassed on buses or other transit; 62 percent said they had been touched and yelled at on the side of the road.

This is even more problematic on the illegal, unregulated buses operating in the city, which people take because they are unable to find alternative transit. These buses have become a scene for persistent sexual harassment for women who cannot afford other means.

"I have never really felt unsafe [in] Delhi," says Arkaja Singh, a lawyer who works in governance and policy in the city. "But," she quickly adds, "I have a car. I would really like to see the city think through how to make it much easier, safe and more comfortable for people to get around without cars."

The city is certainly interested in trying to do just that. Last month, the New Delhi police unfurled a wave of immediate reforms. Each of the city's 180 police stations will soon host a women's help desk, with at least two female officers on hand. The city also added police on the ground and opened up a 24/7 helpline for women facing distress, which is expected to go national. New Delhi is also bulking up its fleet of public buses and claims to have improved responsiveness to complaints about unavailable or unwilling transit operators, like the one involved in the December 16 incident.

After years of neglect, critics complain that these responses don't go nearly far enough. But some observers see them as a sign the city has implementable ideas about combating violence against women. "They want to take up solutions that are more pragmatic and, in a sense, sustainable," says Prabhleen, a member of the Safe Delhi unit of Jagori, who opts to go by one name.

Groups like Jagori have long pushed for planning solutions as a means to address gender inequities in New Delhi. In the past, public officials "didn't see a link between safety of women and service provision," Prabhleen says. December 16 may have changed that. "Today, it's become much more easy to advocate for these issues."

In addition to women's help desks and added police, the city is open to improving basic amenities like lighting at bus stations, metros and alleyways. More often than not, these public places are plastered in darkness. Planners say these fixes are low-hanging fruit the city is fairly likely to grab. According to a Jagori survey, women in New Delhi report feeling much safer when there are lights on and people around. The survey noted that women will trek out late at night, occasionally unaccompanied, in busy, vibrant markets.

"Women want to be able to see bodies on the street," is how the author Sameera Khan, who wrote a book on Indian urban space, described it to the publication Firstpost.

Urban advocates have long pushed to remodel Delhi into "areas where women want to visit," as Prabhleen puts it. Much of this remodeling requires seismic cultural change---an exhaustive amount of public space in New Delhi is exclusively male. In most parts of the city, from its parks to paan shops, a lingering mixture of stigma and safety concerns keep solo women away.

But there are feasible adjustments. While most of New Delhi's neighborhoods offer vibrant and varied street life, some jurisdictions in the metropolis are clamping down on mixed-use zoning. The Unified Traffic & Transport Planning Engineering Center, an agency of the Delhi Development Authority, is trying to stop that. Recently, they released a report calling for the creation of "multi-utility zones" (modeled on neighborhoods in Barcelona and New York City) or neighborhoods that mix residences with stores and street vendors.

Graphic courtesy Unified Traffic & Transport Planning Engineering Center



UTTIPEC also suggests enlarging the regulated fleet, to crowd out illegal competitors, as well as linking all commercial vehicles registered in the city to GPS systems, as many of the private buses are now, and a central control station. They also recommend that all transit drivers should also be verified with the police.

Not everyone supports the idea of adding more bodies to the streets. "Women should not go out late at night,” the Delhi Police Chief told reporters. Two years ago, in preparation for the Commonwealth Games, the city evicted thousands of hawkers. In recent days, it has also considered, as many other Indian cities have, implementing regulations that would push thousands of vendors off the streets.

Of all the city's potential responses, its most immediate -- swelling its police force on the ground -- will likely be the most widespread. But in Delhi, where distrust of the police is rampant, it's unlikely to make women feel safer in the long run. And while planners claim the city is open to enlivening public space, changing attitudes that push women inside may be harder to fix.

Top image: A woman waits at a bus stop in New Delhi January 16, 2013. (Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters)

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