No Space- Children and Public Transport in Mumbai

I travel to and from home each day, in a Virar local that arrives once in about 15- 20 minutes depending on the time of the day. That is always already full to bursting. Where ‘train khali hai’ means that there are only 5 people dangling out instead of 13. Where, on a regular basis there are violent quarrels among women over where to sit, where to put one’s bag, when to move towards the door etc. Where each journey is a fight. No more. No less. Where, in this mela, is the space for children?

Do children not travel by public transport? Do they not go shopping or to the movies or to see friends and relatives? If each journey is such a struggle for me, how much worse it must be for a child- unaccounted for and unconsidered in the construction of this system.

My question is answered every once in a while, in a bizarre reinforcement of the notion that this is an unfriendly city to most children. At one station, a woman and two children (probably between 6 and 11) try to board the train. They can’t. After people have alighted, a group of women ‘block’ the door and refuse to let anyone get in to the train. The woman pushes and shoves and gets her two children in, and then pushes herself after them as the train takes off. Squashed among various alien bodies, the children begin to panic. The women begin to quarrel. And amidst all this there is the constant struggle to stay aboard the train.

It would be easy to speak of the ‘inhumanness’ of those already in the train. And say that women are just so aggressive and inconsiderate. And that this so clearly explains the stereotypes that exist about the relationships between women. And how come you don’t hear all this from the general (read ‘men’s’ ) compartment. Or to reduce all this to a few women in bad moods, or who are generically grumpy or some such thing.

But this is not about the women. Or the men (who, incidentally wouldn’t dream of suggesting that the children travel in the general compartment because its much much more crowded than the Ladies’). It is about space for children in public transport. How many buses have seats reserved for children? How many trains have compartments for children? Are children accounted for at all, in the public transport system?

Ladies get compartments in trains. Ladies get seats in buses. Those who are physically differently abled get a half compartment in trains. And seats in buses. But ask about children, and someone is likely to snap at you and say ‘well, what do you want now!!! Special reservation for yet another category!!! Anyway they can’t travel on their own and for goodness’ sake obviously when we say ‘ladies’ we also mean ‘children’.

We have to ask ourselves if this is good enough.

And I haven’t even begun to talk about children who cannot afford tickets. Who get abused and shooed off trains and even hit, because they are dirty and spoil the sanitised environs of the ‘First Class’. I haven’t even begun to talk about the whole notion of a ‘First Class’ and the idea that the more money you pay, the fewer people you deal with.

Safe travel by public transport is something we have to demand for all children. It is linked inextricably to the way space is being doled out to certain sections of our society and shut out to certain others. The way public space is perceived by children will tell us a great deal about how they see their place in Rising India, Shining India, Mehakta Maharashtra, Vibrant Gujarat, Udta UP or whatever. As people who care about Child Rights, we must care about this.

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