In a 2019 ranking of global cities based on gender inclusion, Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru were near the bottom of the heap. Factors such as access, mobility, safety from violence, health, hygiene, climate resilience and security of tenure were among the indicators taken into account. All these assume an urgent edge as India tries to get back its economic groove in which women can and must play a crucial role.
Cities are usually designed by men — a World Bank report shows that just 10% women occupy high-ranking positions in architecture firms across the world — and, so, they rarely take into account the different ways women can negotiate urban spaces. But the good news is that at least one city in India, Mumbai, is set to change things dramatically and for the better. A chapter “Gender, Special Groups and Social Equity” in the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s revised Draft Development Plan, 2034 focuses on how to make the commercial capital friendlier for women in several crucial ways. This is a template for other cities to follow.
Rather than a huge budgetary allocation, it calls for a reordering of priorities in urban planning. Women activists, academics and architects, among others, have been pushing since at least 2003 for the city to put aside its gender blindness in planning. The plan was approved by the state government in 2018. The solutions are quite simple really and if they are implemented properly – some recommendations are already being executed — it will make Mumbai one of the most women-friendly cities in India, perhaps in Asia.
A skill development centre and a child care centre are almost near-completion. Women coming for work to the city face a serious housing problem, something that is being sought to be rectified by multi-purpose rental accommodation in several places along with guest rooms for women professionals visiting from out of town. Emergency shelters for women victims of domestic violence have been planned.
The pandemic has deepened gender fault lines, especially for elderly women who are often the last to be taken into account when it comes to nutrition and medication within families. The draft plan includes the building of several old age homes for women across the city. None of this has come easy; women’s groups have had to keep up the pressure consistently but it is a credit to the Mumbai city planners that they see the benefit in making these changes at least now.
The skill development centres are proposed to be in prominent areas next to busy markets, railway stations or other public institutions so that women do not have to navigate lonely and unsafe passages while on their way to these centres. Mumbai’s large population of poor urban women too need to catered to, but this is still a work in progress even in the revised plan. There are schemes planned for drinking water, toilets and health facilities for domestic workers and daily wage labourers who are often at the mercy of touts and other predators. The pandemic has led to many women domestic workers losing their jobs and being left to fend for themselves in cities with no social or governmental support. If even part of the schemes in this plan is realised, Mumbai will have opened the door for other cities to follow suit. At a time when women are being rendered invisible by the pandemic in all spheres of life, this brings cheer as a terrible year comes to a close.
The views expressed are personal