Women friends who moved to Mumbai from other cities often tell me they came here because it is a safe place for working women. Unlike, say, Delhi, you can use public transport at almost any time in the city and suburbs and expect a secure commute. Freedom city. Or so they believed. Twenty-five-year-old Preeti Rathi, a nursing graduate from Delhi, thought she was living her dream when she boarded a train to Mumbai to join the Army Medical College in Colaba as a lieutenant. When she arrived at Bandra Terminus on May 2, a man flung acid on her. The attack damaged her respiratory organs, disfigured her face and blinded her in one eye. A month and two hospitals later, Preeti passed away.
Hers is not an isolated case. Three incidents illustrate this.
1. Two women were strolling at dusk in Juhu, near Prithvi Theatre. It is an area frequented by the culture crowd, presumed liberal, and they felt safe. When an auto-rickshaw sped towards them neither was alarmed, but should have been. A man leaned out of it, grabbed the breast of the woman closest to him and squeezed hard. The vehicle did not stop and the episode lasted less than 10 seconds.
2. A trainee reporter went out for a drink with a colleague in south Mumbai and he groped her. When she recoiled, he gave her a fatherly tip: “You should use your trump card.”
3. A woman walked into a police station and requested a copy of a non-cognisable complaint she had filed. The cop on duty asked her how old she was, where she worked and how much she earned, and told her to meet him at night at a nearby police chowky. She said she would bring her father. ‘Come alone,’ he said, ‘why trouble the old man?’
The woman assaulted, molested, sexually harassed and propositioned in each of these cases over a span of two decades in different parts of Mumbai was the same person. Me. Based on experience, would I say Mumbai is safe for women? No. This city clearly has a sexual violence problem. Let us see how it fares statistically against four other major urban centres in India when it comes to non-domestic crimes committed against women. Data from 53 cities, part of the National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) ‘Crime in India’ report for 2011, shows that 433 non-incest rape cases were reported in Delhi (city), 217 in Mumbai, 97 in Bangalore, 76 in Chennai and 46 in Kolkata. Among these urban centres, Mumbai ranked second after Delhi (and all-India), Bangalore third, Chennai fourth and Kolkata fifth.
In the same year Delhi reported 556 molestations, Mumbai 553, Kolkata 254, Bangalore 250 and Chennai 73. Mumbai and Delhi were neck and neck in molestations, but Mumbai stood first in sexual harassment (better known as eve-teasing) that year, reporting 162 cases, followed by Delhi (149), Kolkata (144), Chennai (121) and Bangalore (40). In reporting cyber-stalking and other Internet sex crimes in 2011, Bangalore, India’s Silicon Valley, topped with 19 cases, followed by Delhi and Kolkata (6 each), Chennai (3) and Mumbai (nil).
Crimes against women, especially sexual ones, are globally underreported, and the NCRB statistics aren’t an accurate representation of the actual number of crimes that take place, but this universality makes citywise patterns discernible. Mumbai’s dark side is showing.
Police think the prime suspect in the acid attack on Preeti Rathi, Pawansingh Azadsingh Gahalon from Rohtak, was a man she had spurned in Delhi. Local politicians like to say that such incidents aren’t indicative of a Mumbai problem, but expose imported north Indian chauvinism. They claim outsiders commit crimes. They are both right and wrong. A study on migration, health and employment in the Greater Mumbai Urban Agglomeration conducted by the International Institute for Population Sciences during 2002-03 surveyed 12,128 households in Mumbai city and its seven surrounding urban centres (Navi Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan- Dombivali, Ulhasnagar, Mira- Bhayander, Ambernath and Badlapur). Of these 66.5% were from Mumbai city and 33.5% from the other urban centres. It was found that nearly 57% of those surveyed were migrants, nearly half of the Mumbai city, of which 61% were from outside Maharashtra (nearly 25%from Uttar Pradesh).
While this was a pre-2011-census sample survey, in reality migrants are believed to make up more than 40% of Mumbai’s city and suburban population of 1.24 crore (estimated in the Primary Census Abstract, 2011), with the biggest chunk coming from within Maharashtra. In fact the latest census figures show a negative population growth rate for Mumbai(- 5.75%) in 2011. Wherever they came from, Mumbai is its migrants and vice versa. The outsider argument is tired. The same factors at work in the rest of India make women vulnerable in Mumbai. First, they are considered socially inferior to men. The maabehen- beti tag, a bizarre mix of reverence and contempt, is endemic in our culture and boys are taught it from their cradles.
Second, women lack the economic clout to assert themselves as a group. Money is power, and when only one half of the population wields it, the other half has no say. Women lag behind in education, healthcare, public and private decision-making and governance. This is fundamental to the gender problem.
Third, on an average women make up just 4% of the police force nationally. The nearly all-male police practises and propagates the bias and shames female complainants. The standard theory is that the victim was provocatively dressed, or that she drank and smoked and had male friends, that she asked for it. No explanation is given for why baby girls are raped and butchered. Fourth, and this is a measure of the standard of police forensics and detection in this country, a large number of sex offenders are acquitted. Of the 21,488 trials of non-custodial rape concluded in Indian courts in 2011, only 5,724 convictions (27%) were obtained. In contrast, in the UK for example, the conviction rate in rape trials in 2010 was 58% (as stated in a British ministry of justice report).
And fifth, as an upshot of the brutal gang rape of a young woman in a bus in Delhi last December, parliament passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013.The law lays down a maximum penalty of life imprisonment or death (for repeat offenders) for rape, stalking, acid attacks and other sex crimes. But my question to lawmakers is this: when Indian men are raised to view women as a collection of body parts, when cops put female victims through the wringer, when evidence-gathering is a joke, when non-conviction is almost guaranteed, when the social stigma of complaining against a rapist is almost as great as the agony of the attack, what use this law?
In a story this May headlined ‘The bra that can burn’, Mumbai Mirror reported that three engineering students in Chennai, Manisha Mohan, Rimpi Tripathi and Niladhri Basu Pal, have developed a prototype for a rechargeable electronic brassiere they call Society Harnessing Equipment (SHE). When worn, the device can deliver a 3,800-kV electric shock to any attacker who grabs or squeezes it hard. I’m buying one as soon as they can build it. Because women need maximum support in Maximum City.
Pooja Desai is a writer and journalist. She has worked with The Times of India, DNA and Mid Day.