Cities & Architecture

How Do Bengaluru’s Working Women Make It Home at Night?

Getting home at late hours is often made out to be an issue only for women working the night shift in the IT sector – but it affects many others as well.

Representative image. Credit: Pixabay

Representative image. Credit: Pixabay

Some years ago, Kavita K.V. would occasionally travel home at 10 pm from work in Bommanahalli in southern Bengaluru.

Bommanahalli is next door to Electronics City, home to all those workplaces which have shaped the popular imagination of what Bengaluru is for the last two decades, all those smart young workplaces churning smart young employees round the clock. But Kavita works in a garment factory, a less-than-legendary Bengaluru occupation that, in fact, employs more than 24 lakh people.

On those nights, Kavita had to walk from the factory for 4 km until she reached the bus stop. Kavita would then change buses twice and finally walk the last kilometre home. On the whole, home was around 30 km away and it took her at least two hours to get there.

There were two roads from her factory that she could walk down to reach the bus stop. Kavita realised this because she got hopelessly lost the first time she tried finding her way there at night. That day she grit her teeth and took an auto for double the metre, not even the usual ‘one and a half’ rates. The driver took her through the longest route but also the most lit. It had more people than the roads she had been walking down. At 10:30 pm, the shops had wound up for the day and only the small food joints were open.

Afterwards Kavita preferred walking down this road even though it was the longer route. “I’d rather walk down a dimly lit street with people, than a seemingly empty road with no lights,” she says. Then, laughing grimly, she adds, “Who knows if it’s really empty.”

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On June 15, Manisha Kumari, who works at IT multinational IDC Technologies, spoke to India Today about how her company still prefers to break the law by refusing to provide transportation to female employees. When she had complained, Kumari was told that the company was not responsible for her safety once she logged out.

Karnataka has had a long history of women being ‘allowed’ to work night shifts. Night shifts are often associated with companies in the IT sector and in March 2017, a joint legislature panel recommended that IT and BT companies should avoid assigning night shifts to women.

This wisdom-filled advice came despite the government removing restrictions on women working night shifts in all sectors in December 2016. They’d also mandated that all companies must provide them with transport back home.

It’s not only IT companies that neglect their employees’ safety once they’ve finished their work, just their neglect that makes it to the headlines.

At the garment factory, Kavita’s supervisors were not interested in how and when she got home. “It didn’t matter to them, as long as I was back at the factory the next day,” she says.

Like Kavita, many women working late into the night in Bengaluru, or those who work early or night shifts as nurses in hospitals, at police stations, in hotels, as sanitation workers or as security guards, are never provided transport back home. Instead, they have to walk long distances at 3-4 am, and wait at big bus stops like Majestic until buses start plying. Or they have to find a lone auto and pay extra – money that women like Kavita say they would much rather save to pay their children’s school fees, house rent or electricity bills. The cabs that other women with more well-paying jobs might otherwise choose to use late at night isn’t even an option.

Women who work night shifts in companies that do provide transport home are usually driven back in cabs or tempos, depending on the number of people leaving at the same time. When it’s only women travelling, they’re usually accompanied by a security guard, who is expected to ensure they’re dropped to their doorstep. Jemimah Jose, who briefly worked night shifts at Bagmane Tech Park, says that the last woman to be dropped home or the first woman to be picked up for an early shift had to sign a sheet of paper saying she had reached safely. “I don’t think I would have taken up the job if they hadn’t provided me with transport. My mother wouldn’t have agreed either,” she says.

Yashodha P.H., executive committee member of the Garment Labour Union, wants some kind of system in place if the garment sector decides to start employing women in night shifts. “I understand wanting women to be allowed to work night shifts in terms of equality. But we don’t even have a guarantee of safety inside the factory, so if women are to work night shifts, then they need to have a safe system of transport dropping workers home,” she says.

Women working as manual scavengers (which some members of the Karnataka government unbelievably wants to legalise) can’t even conceive of making these demands of safety. Often their employment is dependent on keeping them afraid.

Divya Bharathi, the filmmaker-activist who made the unsettling documentary Kakkoos, had once told The Ladies Finger in an interview that it’s often women sanitation workers who are made to work the night shift. “Unlike the men who are likely to wander out [at night], the women are considered more ‘responsible’. And unlike the men, women don’t usually wander out at night alone, but will work in groups,” she had said. Of course, they weren’t given any guarantee of any kind.

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A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night poster.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night poster.

Ever since she started working in a factory in Peenya because it’s closer to home (it’s about 7 km away and takes around half an hour to reach), Kavita travels in private buses or tempos because even the public BMTC buses are too expensive. What would have cost her Rs 15 in a BMTC bus costs Rs 6 in a private bus. These private buses (often with tigers painted on them) are the ones that anyone who can afford to travel by air-conditioned BMTC buses look at with expressions of horror and suspicion – they are usually full of men, drive rashly, with loud music blaring. Kavita knows how unsafe they are, especially when there are only men on board.

Lata* works as a bus conductor for the BMTC. But when she is done at work she takes a private tempo home. She has a horror story of how she was once groped by two men sitting behind her on one of these private buses. When she yelled, the men laughed, and she got off at the next stop only to find that her money had been stolen. It was 11 pm and it took her more than an hour to walk to her house that was beyond Kanakapura.

Like Kavita, Lata continues to take the private bus anyway. She wishes there were more BMTC buses that ran at night and at a higher frequency.

Lata’s work situation is an excellent illustration of the fact that you don’t need to be a woman on the night shift to have all the problems of the night shift in Bengaluru.

Uma Maheshwari, head of the women’s wing of the BMTC Union says that women conductors who work until 10:30-11 pm are expected to go into the big depots (“There aren’t even toilets for women here,” she says as an aside), only after which can they head home. “From here, they have to change buses at least three times and then walk long distances,” she says. It’s often much after 12 am that they reach home and there’s an added fear because they’re almost always carrying more money than they would if they hadn’t been working.

Bengaluru seems to have been imagined as a city that’s built and runs for men working in the IT industry. This is despite the fact that lakhs of women work in Bengaluru, both during the day and night.

But as Gautam Bhan of the Indian Institute of Human Settlements in Bengaluru, that researches urban change, says, “The notion of women who work at night outside the call centre has always been equated either to sex work or work that is somehow illicit. It’s the dance bar story. It’s always been the marking of a particular occupation.”

Shubha Chacko, who works at the NGO Anekal, further argues that this hoary old idea makes things worse for people who do work as sex workers, for whom the street is a place of work.

“For a woman, going into a mostly empty bus late at night implies that you have set yourself up; that you have forfeited your right to be protected,” says Chacko. She argues that that where one class of people feels safe need not be the same for others – someone who lives in a slum might feel safer there, while someone who isn’t might feel more unsafe. This, along with effectively making policies that addresses different concerns is something that needs to be addressed. Chacko sites surveillance as an example: some might feel safer with CCTVs, while others find that it can potentially victimise them further.

Everywhere, women will be expected not only to explain their presence (after which there will be a debate about whether that presence is legitimate). And so, the transport available for them is limited, because the city isn’t imagined that way. But the lakhs of women who work in Bengaluru continue to imagine their own presents and futures, without help from the government or the white collar army.

Gowramma sells jasmine and marigold flowers at K.R. Market, usually at the same spot every day. She sits next to Raju, who sells fruits and brings her a portion of tea in a flask that his wife sends with him every day. Unlike Gowramma, who comes in before 4 am and begins to tie jasmine flowers together in time for the first round of shoppers coming in at 5:30 am, Raju comes in by six.

Gowaramma walks to the market at 3 am everyday with her basket of flowers. “I walk here slowly from my house, which is half an hour away. There’s nobody on the roads at that time, so I usually keep my head down and sing to myself as I walk,” she says. There’s no other way.

By arrangement with The Ladies Finger.