This article contains excerpts of our conversation with Aila Bandagi. You can check out the entire podcast episode on Spotify.
We spoke to Aila Bandagi Kandlakunta, who is an urban researcher and activist. Her work focuses on gender and cities in India. She is a PhD scholar at the Department of Geography, University of Nevada. Her work attempts to understand what a gender responsive city in the global south looks like. Aila is also an India Urban Fellow from the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore and A Writing Urban India Fellow from the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. She holds a master’s degree in development studies from Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad. Previously, she worked as a fact-checker with Factly and as a research associate for inclusive development at the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
Aila’s investigation of how cities respond to women began in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape and murder of 2012. With not enough information on women’s problems in urban areas in India, Aila went from working as a development professional to a PhD researcher, hoping to address some of the questions. She got interested in feminist geography and quoted Dr Leslie Kern to define it: “…feminist geography is about looking at the spaces around us—our human-made environments, our natural environments—and seeing the ways in which they have been shaped by ideas of gender and power relations.”
Mobility needs of men and women are different in cities
84 per cent of women’s work trips are by walking, cycling, and using public transportation in India. The Census, in fact, does not collect data for travelling outside the house for more than 500 metres for productive work; therefore, we are by default bound by data that does not look at leisure or care trips, or domestic work itself. Women also travel during off-peak hours as they are responsible for the (unpaid) domestic work in the house; women usually travel after men have left homes for work and need to come back before kids have come home from school. This is also the timing when the frequency of public transportation is low.
Thus, women end up waiting longer too, apart from the fact that they are completely dependent on low-speed mobility. The time poverty due to work inside and outside the house, including the slow modes of mobility, give women no time for leisure or relaxation. Trip-chaining, which includes performing activities simultaneously, like going to work and dropping off children along the way, coming from the office and picking up groceries, etc., actually ends up being an expensive affair for women. Our public transport fares make it cheaper to travel longer distances and expensive to travel shorter distances.
Coming to societal norms and perceptions of safety, women cannot loiter in India. Women have to constantly strategise when it comes to travelling outside: we have to be good, wear Indian/traditional clothing, cover-up, show symbols of marital status, only to be safe in public spaces. Gender is one of the key socio-demographic variables that can influence travel behaviour but it is also one of the least understood. Simply put, women’s mobility is connected with their economic empowerment, as bad public transportation systems directly mean that they cannot seek paid work opportunities.
Normalisation of women’s roles at home and COVID-induced setback of redesigning urban systems
Women have been six times more vulnerable to losing jobs than men during the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, a study by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) showed that only half of the women were allowed to travel outside the village or community by themselves, without being accompanied by menfolk. After COVID-19, this might exacerbate, and they might need to justify why they leave homes, impacting education, work opportunities, or even access government aid/relief. We do need to make an argument for co-sharing domestic work; the reality, however, is that women have to do it anyway. If schools and creches do not open, how will women really get back to work?
When the pandemic situation eases, we might see fewer women on the streets due to these reasons. In fact, the lack of safety in public spaces might get amplified: lesser women on the street will translate into a greater lack of safety for them. This also creates a lack of belonging in public spaces for women in camaraderie with other women. Public transport, today, has not fully recovered in terms of frequency or costs and, clearly, this has a powerful caste and gender bias.
Intersection of (social) identities
When the pandemic started, domestic workers, who usually belong to the Dalit, Bahujan, and Adivasi (DBA) communities, were the first ones to get laid off. We did not allow them in our houses. How can we get these women back to work? We need to run more buses with less capacity for their safety, and the state is not doing that. In the case of disabled women, they cannot even access vaccines because of lack of public transportation and other safety issues. Thus, we need to look at a more nuanced understanding of (social) groups and cater to their needs.
Mainstreaming gender-analysis in post-COVID-19 urban development planning
We need women at the table where decisions are being made, be it for a simple project of constructing a footpath or the state- or city-level projects of making mobility points. In the short term, however, governments have to innovate. They need to work with Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to build creches that will help women get back to work. We should also promote cycling: giving free cycles to school-going girls and working women, and setting up pop-up cycle lanes for safety, and a public cycle station. This is a good stop-gap arrangement.
Most importantly, the trust in public transit needs to be brought back. We need to make public transport completely free for women, as they end up paying all kinds of costs to be in the public space. In the longer term, we should work towards ensuring transit-oriented development and build walkable neighbourhoods, where most facilities are available in 15 minutes walking radius. Staggered work timings in cities, especially in central-business districts, can help prevent crowding. Gender responsive mobility plans, updated gender disaggregated data, are very critical. A Safety Cell at the city level, which integrates resources across line departments and ministries, is recommended too.
Neutrality is not equality when the balance is unequal to start with. Women are not a homogenous community, and trans-women should be centred around policy and project planning too. They deserve free transportation, reserved seats, and cycling, as a mode of transportation, should be extended to them too.
Finally, Aila’s recommendations for better understanding feminist geography and reimagining city spaces can be viewed here: Leslie Kern’s Feminist City: Claiming Space in the Man-Made World (book); Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy’s The Feminist City (podcast).
This podcast was conducted by Tanya Rana, a master’s student of public policy at O.P. Jindal Global University.