Demand Nirbhaya—fearless—cities

Catalysing safe design for public spaces should be among the top priorities to make cities safe for women, children and the elderly

I first let this pass without comment—the Rs 1,000 crore Nirbhaya fund for women’s safety proposed in the Union Bdget.  Many have glossed over this with a reverent salute to quickly move on to the hard numbers of this stark accounting document. Others are angry, outraged, and dismissive of this fund as tokenism and populism with no clarity of mandate. But I read that paragraph in the budget speech once again.

My attention was riveted to this observation: “As more women enter public spaces—for education or work or access to services or leisure—there are more reports of violence against them.” The operative word here is “public spaces”.  Of course, Chidambaram has used this literally to state the obvious. But if we were to join the dots to write the terms of reference for the ministry of women and child development and other ministries to define the scope and structure of the ‘Nirbhaya fund’, then catalysing safe design for “public spaces” would be among the top priorities.

Put your ear to the global buzz on urban planning and design to know that “a public realm for the people” is the new mantra to keep all safe and secure in a city. Will India ever include this agenda in the “collective responsibility to ensure the dignity and safety of women” – as preached in the budget speech? The high decibel, high-powered meetings on gender safety that had boiled over immediately after the December 16 gang rape case in Delhi looked narrowly at the state’s responsibility only as installing safety gadgets in buses and revamping police surveillance. 

Very few have understood the value of the principle that seeks to revitalize cities to bring people to “public spaces” by design to keep an eye on streets and buildings. For centuries, we have designed our cities in this way; but we went off the track when history collided with cars. We are no longer designing our cities on human scale to foster human contact, mingling spaces, meeting points that make all safe and happy. But macho cars have muscled in a change in urban design that isolates, and creates lonely distances, unsafe fringes, and dehumanised spaces that foster crime.

It was, therefore, a welcome surprise when DDA-UTTIPEC sensibly put out the guidelines on Safety, Freedom, and Respect for Women, to demand that urban planning and design must be combined with policing, legislation and justice. The new guidelines have asked the city planners to get rid of deserted unwatched places such as flyovers, signal-free corridors, subways, lonely fringes, gated communities and their walls. It asked for inclusive streets, urban and landscape design. It’s message, ‘build cities for people not cars’.

This idea was further reinforced when the DDA-UTTIPEC launched transit-oriented development guidelines in February to pitch for compact and mixed use development to empower all to walk, cycle, hop on and off buses and the Metro, and make “public spaces” less vulnerable. This resonates well with the national habitat standards for transportation of the ministry of urban development that has also asked for dense and mixed activities, smaller and open building block sizes, permeable streets made walkable, accessible and safe.

Unfortunately, these wise filters have not yet reached the real estate industry, urban and transport planning and construction bodies, project approval agencies and the grassroots city residents – all are partners in the original mess. Several new development and redevelopment projects in Delhi and other cities and new townships are coming up insulated from this big idea.

If the Union Budget is committing funds for women’s safety, it has to get this big picture right. Budget cannot remain an old school accounting system when the governance challenge has transformed. Why else would the budget sanction funds for cities to buy buses under the flagship JNNURM programme without linking the strategy to transforming infrastructure for public transport?

The JNNURM has already made the mistake of rolling out buses in cities without pushing for public transport infrastructure and letting cities splurge on roads, flyovers and multilevel parking for cars. Cities desperately need good buses and also reliable bus service.  But this ill-designed programme has ensured buses don’t get space, or have speed, are unsafe, poorly maintained, have poor access, pay more taxes than cars and Metro, and pay more for fuel than cars. They have killed the big idea and ensured that the new buses make no difference to the way people decide to travel. What a wasteful investment!

This has to change. We need strong fiscal signals for a whole new way of designing our cities and our mobility for all to stay healthy, happy and safe.