What a man saw inside a ladies' special train

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By JIM YARDLEY IN PALWAL (HARYANA) NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE
  • Published 17.09.09
  • a few seconds read
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As the morning commuter train rattled down the track, Chinu Sharma, an office worker, enjoyed the absence of men. Some of them pinch and grope women on trains, or shout insults and catcalls, she said. Her friend Vandana Rohile agreed and widened her eyes in mock imitation.

“Sometimes they just stare at you,” said Rohile, 27.

Up and down the jostling train, women repeated the same theme: As millions of women have poured into the Indian work force over the last decade, they have faced different obstacles in a tradition-bound, patriarchal culture, but few are more annoying than the basic task of getting to work.

The problems of taunting and harassment are so persistent that in recent months the government has decided to simply remove men altogether. In a pilot programme, eight new commuter trains exclusively for female passengers have been introduced in India’s four largest cities: New Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Calcutta.

The trains are known as Ladies Specials, and on one recent round trip in which a male reporter got permission to board, the women commuting between the industrial town of Palwal and New Delhi were very pleased.

“It’s so nice here,” said a teacher, Kiran Khas, who has commuted by train for 17 years. Khas said the regular trains were thronged with vegetable sellers, pickpockets, beggars and lots of men. “Here on this train,” she said, as if describing a miracle, “you can board anywhere and sit freely.”

For many years, women travelling by train sat with men, until crowding and security concerns prompted the railroad to reserve two compartments per train for women. But with trains badly overcrowded, men would break into cars for women and claim seats.

Mumbai started operating two women-only trains in 1992, yet the programme was never expanded. Then, with complaints rising from female passengers, railway minister Mamata Banerjee announced the eight new Ladies Specials trains.

“It speaks of their coming of age and assertiveness,” said Mukesh Nigam, a railway official.

Many men are not thrilled. Several female passengers said eve-teasing was worse here in northern India than elsewhere in the country. As the Ladies Special idled on Track 7 at the station in Palwal, a few men glared from the platform. The Ladies Special was far less crowded, with clean, padded benches and electric fans, compared with the dirty, darkened train on Track 6 filled with sullen men. Vandals sometimes write profanities on the Ladies Special, or worse.

“The local boys will come and use the bathroom on the train,” said Meena Kumari, one of the female ticket collectors in flowing blue saris who patrol the train along with female security officers. “They do it out of contempt. They do not want the train to run.”

As the train began moving, one woman sat meditating. Nearby, an accountant read a prayer book, while college students gossiped a few rows away.

“If you go to work, then you are independent, you earn some money and can help the family,” said Archana Gahlot, 25. “And if something happens to the marriage, you have something.

“Even on this train,” Gahlot continued, “men sometimes board and try to harass the women. Sometimes they openly say, ‘Please close the Ladies Special.’

“Maybe they think the government is helping out women and not men,” she added.

The eight new trains represent a tiny fraction of the nation’s commuter trains. Only one Ladies Special serves New Delhi, though the railway ministry has announced future Ladies Special service. Dr Ranjari Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, said the service was a politically astute move, if not a long-term solution.

“You really need to make every train as safe as the Ladies Specials,” Kumari said.

Men are hardly the only ones unnerved by the changing role of women in Indian society. Namita Sharma, 39, remembers that her mother advised her to become a teacher to balance between work and family; instead, she chose a career in fashion. Now that Sharma has a 14-year-old daughter with ideas of her own, she worries about crime.

“She has her own point of view, and I have my own point of view for her,” she said, smiling. “Let’s see who wins. She talks of independence. I am independent.”

But, she added: “Let’s talk of a secure kind of independence.”

Then the train stopped, and Sharma stood up. Asked what more the government could do for women, she laughed.

“Oh my God, it is a long list,” she said. “But I’m sorry, this is my station.”

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