In March, the Leh district administration took its first major step to stem the flow of private vehicles on the town’s extremely congested roads by flagging off its public bus service system.
The general public response to this move was one of relief and appreciation. There were complaints as well, but it’s in the nature of any new public administration measure to undergo certain teething problems.
But the bus-driven changes were only beginning. Now the district administration has responded to growing public demand, especially from women, for a special bus service for women who work late into the evening and have to depend on either a relative or local taxi services (sometimes on a sharing basis) to get back home.
The problem with local taxi services is one of reliability and cost.
With the tourist season in full swing, the district administration on June 11, under Deputy Commissioner Avny Lavasa, flagged off an exclusive bus service for women on the Leh-Choglamsar and Leh-Skalzangling routes.
These buses, from the main Leh town to these satellite townships and back, will leave at 7:30 pm for working women who need to get back home.
After flagging off the bus service DC Avny Lavasa travelled on the bus along with elected women officials and representatives from a host of women welfare groups.
“It was started because the women who are working during the tourist season in the town expressed problems going home late after work. Leh to Choglamsar is the busiest route so we have started the service there first from 7.30 pm onwards,” said DC Avny Lavasa, speaking to The Better India.
For the time being, however, this is the only functional route.
“It’s a test of sorts. We will review it in a few days and make modifications where required. This initiative is a token of goodwill towards our women folk,” she added.
Speaking to local media, she also stated that 45 new buses would be added on the roads of Leh, which would tremendously help streamline the public transport system.
Local women have reacted to this initiative with great fanfare. “It has brought a great sense of relief and security for womenfolk,” says Tsering Dolkar, the owner of a local business establishment.
“The success of any public transport system hinges on its reliability. We are working out fixed timetables and stops. This will streamline the service and help people schedule their travels. We are also planning airport shuttle service and a tourist circuit route,” said the Leh District Administration office, when contacted by The Better India.
This isn’t the first time in India where women had a public bus service dedicated to them. In neighbouring Srinagar, the J&K government started a bus service exclusively for women in April 2016. It began with a fleet of five buses making two round trips to Kashmir University.
A woman’s experience of travelling on public transport is inherently different.
Addressing a male opposition leader who questioned the State government’s move, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti retorted that it was difficult for a man to “comprehend what women went through” while travelling in public or private passenger buses.
Women assume a higher share of a household’s travel burden and care-taking responsibilities but have inferior access to both public and private modes of transport, according to the Global Report on Human Settlements.
On top of these concerns is the constant harassment, usually sexual in nature, that women face while travelling public transport.
Transportation systems have unfortunately taken a long time to account for these differences.
The capital of Nepal, Kathmandu, for example, also has a women-only public bus service. It was started to reduce incidences of sexual harassment on public buses.
In a 2013 survey, the World Bank found that 96% of women preferred sitting next to another woman on a bus. Nearly one-third of the respondents said that they chose their mode of transport based on personal security concerns.
One of the Central government-appointed Justice JS Verma Committee’s recommendations was to make journeys in public transport safer, especially for women. If the Leh district administration wants to expand these services for women, there are key concerns that need to be addressed.
The committee, for example, recommended “identities of drivers and other personnel who work in public transport vehicles be vetted by the local Road Transport Authority and there must be a certification of their good character by at least two known persons in the city where they are operating. The local police should have a complete database of information regarding such personnel.”
In addition, the report recommended the installation of CCTV cameras, tamper-proof GPS systems, availability of a hotline number for passengers, the presence of a male/female constable on board, inspection at check posts and a clear presentation of the driver and bus owner’s details.
Having said that, this is seemingly a good first step, especially in the tourist season where travellers from around the world converge en masse. It goes without saying that both locals and women travellers must have access to safe public transport.
(Edited By Vinayak Hegde)