NEW DELHI, India — Public transport for women in India was not ideal long before the horrific gang rape on a bus in December 2012. There's a reason all-female cars exist on Delhi's metro system.
For a while, a recommended alternative for women facing rampant sexual harassment on public transportation, particularly those traveling late at night, was private cars or radio taxis — which are cabs fitted with GPS, so they can be tracked. Most offices provide cabs home for female employees working late.
But now, even these trusted options have come under scrutiny. On July 2, a woman in Delhi booked a cab through an app on her phone, and she said the driver who picked her up masturbated while taking her home.
“He had little control over the wheel as well as his perverseness,” wrote the passenger, who shared details of the incident on Twitter and Facebook. She had booked the cab through the popular Indian app Ola, which sent her a cab from TaxiForSure, another app-based cab company. “Since it was late, the only thing I could do was open my window as I counted the seconds to reach home,” she wrote.
Radio cabs used to be considered a safe option because they can be tracked, but the rape of an Uber passenger last December changed that perception. After that attack, Uber was banned in Delhi and took months to make a comeback. The company only just received clearance to resume operations from the Delhi High Court on July 8.
Uber has been working hard to improve its safety credentials after the incident, installing an SOS button on the app, an India-first feature, which connects the caller to the police and alerts a pre-designated emergency contact. An Incident Response Team has been introduced, which immediately calls passengers who rate drivers poorly to address any "critical issues" with the ride, according to Deval Delivala, who takes the lead on India safety at Uber.
Uber also partnered with women’s safety organizations like Safetipin, an NGO that tracks the safety of Delhi streets. Uber cabs in Delhi now have cameras in them through which Safetipin can identify streets that are better lit and more populated at different times of day. “They have mapped out all of Delhi into safe zones,” said Delivala. “That’s a partnership which helps us make the city safer.”
Additional layers to the chauffeur verification process were also introduced, including criminal background checks. In India, there are no social security numbers to help vet each individual’s records, so only those drivers holding commercial licenses are allowed to work for Uber. The process for commercial licenses already verifies all insurance and background checks, simplifying Uber’s task.
But despite Uber’s efforts, another passenger reported sexual harassment by her driver in June. The passenger alleged that the driver attempted to kiss and molest her, charges which the driver denied when arrested by police.
Indian apps like Ola and TaxiForSore rushed to fill the gap Uber left during its months away, each boasting safety upgrades to prove they were better than Uber. Ola cabs rolled out its own pre-set emergency contact feature, along with an SOS button to send cab and location details when required.
According to Deepika Shetty, a communications associate at Ola, the company announced a $20 million investment for “safety initiatives,” hiring a background verification company and adding a “second layer” of GPS installed in the taxis for tracking. The accused in the Uber rape case had turned off his phone, making him untraceable and exposing another weakness in the safety precautions taken by these cab services.
However, the latest incident involving the driver accused of masturbating shows that Ola has also failed at fool-proofing its operations.
Sexual harassment is rampant in nearly all public spaces in Delhi. According to a survey carried out by the Safe Delhi Campaign in 2010, two out of three women reported facing incidents of sexual harassment two to five times in a year.
Given the immense difficulty of preventing sexual harassment, even the cab services in Delhi have started to resort to segregation. Delhi-based Sakha Consulting provides cabs with female drivers that only women or men accompanying women can take.
Deepali Bhardwaj, chief operating officer at Sakha Consulting, which is a for-profit company, said their female drivers experience “driving as a very liberating and empowering option; it was breaking a glass ceiling.”
“It is something extremely liberating not only for the chauffeur, but also for the commuter,” she continued.
While Sakha operates with only 15 cabs, larger players are also looking to launch women-only services. Meru Eve by Meru Cabs launched in January this year, and Ola Pink was announced last December, though it is not on the streets yet. Uber has made a commitment to take on 50,000 women drivers in India by 2020.
It will not be an easy task, as women drivers are still uncommon in India. The Azad Foundation, a nonprofit that collaborated with Sakha, focuses on correcting this imbalance. “We believe that this really strikes at the heart of patriarchy, because mobility is something that is constantly denied to women,” said Padmakshi Badoni, research officer at Azad. “Until women get out into the public sphere, it can’t get better. They have to be visible.”
Isolating women to keep them safe is not something everyone agrees with. According to Malini Chopra, manager of the Indian NGO Men Against Rape and Discrimination (MARD), it is just as important to work with men and boys to weed out discrimination. “We need to work towards gender equality where men and women are given equal opportunities because they deserve it, not because there isn't any option left," she said.