Today, the newspapers were filled with the news that you can now eat food from McDonald’s, KFC and Dominos while travelling on Indian Railways. People travelling on Rajdhani and Shatabdi trains can now pre-order fast food to their sites online, or through phones or even SMS. Divisional commercial manager Rajneesh Srivastava told the Hindustan Times that this “was an effort to provide a delightful travelling experience to passengers”.
Waow so nice but don’t you think making women’s safety a priority on trains might make for an even more delightful travelling experience for passengers? On June 9th, a woman travelling on the Aravali Express was raped by a railway attendant in the pantry car of the train while travelling from Jaipur to Mumbai. The rapist was apprehended and arrested on Tuesday night. This is hardly a unique case, or even the only one in a month: on the 31st of May, a government railway police constable was arrested for raping a woman in the disabled coach of the Lucknow-Chandigarh Express train. There’ve have been several such stories over the years, the most famous of which is the Soumya rape and murder case that took place in Kerala in 2011.
Given the sheer number of such instances that happen on the railways, many women feel like there’s a real and tangible risk involved with travelling alone. Just yesterday, my friend posted on social media as she was travelling in an overnight train from Chennai to Thiruvananthapuram, talking about how uncomfortable she feels about a man continuously staring at her, and how frustrating it is to constantly feel unsafe on overnight trains.
In November 2016, the government launched a mobile-based app called R-Mitra that’s dedicated to women’s safety on trains: upon pressing a button, the user’s location is tracked and action taken accordingly. Is it a foolproof system that ensures women’s safety on trains? Absolutely not: you have to have a mobile phone to use it, and the likelihood of being able to use the app in time to prevent rape or assault seems very low. Thiruvananthapuram has a 24-hour women’s safety helpline designed for incidents on the railways, but they face the same problems: it feels like they’d be more useful in apprehending rapists than actually preventing rapes.
There’s clearly a need to come up with ways to make the railways safer for women, from proper vetting and training of the staff and police who man it (given the number of rapes that are committed by people actually employed by the railways), to deploying officers specifically charged with ensuring that incidents like this never take place. These may not be the best or the only ways to tackle the issue, but the point is, we need to be coming together to think in this direction and make women’s safety on trains a real priority.