Why we must still reserve seats for women on public transport

The practice of reserving a certain number of seats for women on trains and buses is prevalent across cities, but continues to be questioned by many, including women. Navya P K weighs in on the reality of such reservation and its necessity.

If recent news reports are to be believed, the Bangalore Metro is set to have coaches for women soon, according to Minister for Bengaluru Development and Town Planning K J George. The facility is expected to be implemented in 2019, when the total number of coaches will be increased from three to six.

The demand for reservation had come from a section of women passengers, once the Purple Line (Mysore Road to Byappanahalli) became operational and ridership multiplied. BMRCL currently estimates that 40% of their nearly three lakh daily passengers are women, and plans to hold a survey to find the exact numbers.

Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata Metro Rails already have reservation for women in some form or the other. In Delhi Metro, the first coach of every train, and a few seats in each compartment are reserved for women. Mumbai Metro has reserved half a coach, and Kolkata Metro has reserved a certain number of seats in each coach for women.

Reservation exists in other public transport too. Indian Railways has general compartments as well as some reserved berths for women in their trains. Local train services, like in Mumbai and Kolkata, have special ladies-only compartments. As per the Motor Vehicles Act (1988), a percentage of seats in buses too should be reserved for women, though the percentage varies across states depending on state rules – it could be 25, 33, lesser or slightly higher. For example, Delhi Transport Corporation increased women’s seats to 25% only in 2013, after the 2012 gangrape case. There are ladies’ special buses and cabs in some cities as well.

Yet, questions continue to be raised on why women are given this special ‘privilege’, and whether it does any good at all. For instance, in online discussion forums, women who support reservation are called hypocritical and many – including women – insist that reservation should only be for pregnant/elderly women or women carrying children. Other women do not need it, and hence should not ask men to vacate reserved seats or compartments, these voices say.

Reserved seats: The reality

This attitude is pervasive, which means that reservation is poorly enforced. In cases where men occupy women’s seats, conductors and sometimes women themselves do not intervene, and those who do speak up are often ignored or even snubbed. For instance, in Bangalore-Chennai overnight trains, it is common for men to sleep in women’s compartments. The two times I personally witnessed this, and gave complaints to the railway station authorities, no action was taken at all.

Another recent instance was while travelling in a government bus in Hospet town in North Karnataka. While my female friend and I were standing in the crowded bus, along with some 15 other women, the women’s seats were fully occupied by men. When we asked two men to vacate their seats, the response was absurd – that other men were sitting in women’s seats too. Our complaints to the conductor and even officers at the bus station were met with surprise. This is how things have always been around here; seating was always on first-come-first-serve basis and not based on gender, they informed us.

But if seating really was first-come-first-serve, why were women here always occupying only the reserved seats, and not the general ones? Ideally, women could occupy any seat, but they weren’t. In an empty bus, women here would usually sit in the reserved seats in front. Meanwhile, men would start occupying the general seats, and later, any women’s seats that were empty.

In my hometown in Kerala, where nearly the same number of men and women travel in buses during non-peak hours, women are the ones who end up without a seat –  because the seats reserved for women are fewer, and all the remaining ‘general’ seats are occupied by men.

The pattern is the same in bus services across India, including Bengaluru. In this city, especially during peak hours, you may find women occupying a few seats behind the reserved ones, but not much beyond that. In Volvo buses too, women usually occupy the front section. In short, reservation of a small number of seats for women translates into reservation of all the remaining ones for men.

The question would then be, why do women not claim their rightful space in the general section, and why do they need segregated seats at all? The core problem here is not lack of assertiveness, but of safety.

Where reservation really helps

Studies from across the world have pointed out that safety is a major concern for women in public transport. A 2015 survey of 493 female bus passengers in Bangalore, conducted by faculty at the MS Ramaiah Institute of Management and others, found that half the women surveyed had faced sexual harassment in buses. Awkward touch by conductors and co-passengers was a common issue, along with theft. But only 0.09% had ever filed a police complaint.

The women either believed that their complaint would not be addressed, or that the process would be cumbersome without any real results. Since sexual harassment cases are usually trivialised, such cynicism may not be misplaced at all.

The situation forces women to either silently suffer, or to shift to other transport modes, the survey finds. Thirty nine percent of the women who had faced problems, had stopped using buses altogether.

Recent surveys in other cities have shown similar results. A Lucknow survey found that 82% of the respondents – young and educated – had faced sexual comments, and 76% had tried to learn self-defence just to feel safe! In a Mumbai survey of 4500 plus women, over half reported having been sexually harassed in buses and trains, and 89% wanted more ladies’ special buses and trains during peak hours.

A 2010 survey by the NGO Jagori, supported by the Delhi government and UN, had found that half the women surveyed had been harassed in public transport, and 83% reported Metro stations as highly unsafe. Around a third of women avoid crowded public transport and going out alone. It also found that younger or poorer women were more vulnerable.

These results point to the constant fear and vigilance that characterises women’s daily use of public transport. The absurdity of this situation is trumped only by the normalisation of such violence, and the callousness of co-passengers and bus staff who become mute spectators. It hardly comes as a surprise therefore that a survey in Bhopal found that conductors and drivers believed that harassment was not prevalent, and 30% believed that women were equally responsible for such incidents.

In short, women’s experiences in public transport and in public spaces is defined by exclusion. Having been designated to fit the ‘safe’ private space of the home, women’s entry into the public space in itself is seen as an intrusion into male domain. There are instances where women sitting in general seats are asked to go to the reserved section. Sometimes women using general spaces are seen as “asking for” sexual harassment too.

Lack of safe public transport also has a much bigger and obvious implication. For a majority of women, safe public transport is a precondition for accessing education, jobs etc. Recent studies have shown that lack of safety, including in public transport, is a major reason for the declining work participation of Indian women. The problem is amplified by lack of last mile connectivity and street harassment.

So how does reservation help in these matters? Reservation does confine women and restrict their full access to public space. But in reserved sections, women travel with lesser anxiety and occupy space comfortably. So the real, larger problem is not that a few seats/compartments are reserved for women, but the lack of dereservation of ‘public’/male spaces.

Being truly inclusive

EMBARQ, an NGO working on sustainable transport, proposes ‘gender mainstreaming’ of transport as a long-term solution to this. Globally, studies have shown that women’s commute patterns are different from that of men – women travel more during off-peak hours, take single trips with multiple stops to complete chores etc.

Transport authorities should collect data on women’s needs specifically, and apply these in transport design and operations, says EMBARQ. For example, there can be frequent bus trips during off-peak hours and to peripheral areas as well, instead of only radial corridors connecting to the city centre.

Some other measures proposed by EMBARQ include hiring more female staff in transport agencies and services, and Nirbhaya Vans coming to the bus’s location in case of crime instead of the bus going to the police station. Allowing women to board and alight buses at any random point in the route during late night travel, good designing of bus stops with lighting and information are other recommendations.

In the case of Metro and local trains, timings could be extended till late at night, and integrated public transport improved for last mile connectivity. These would not just ensure women’s safety and access, but also encourage them to not shift to the more expensive and polluting private transport.

Implementing such measures can change women’s experience of public spaces altogether, and pave the way for a future where we may not need gender-based reservation of seats. But the reality is that these are a long way away, and utopian at this point. For now, therefore, while we demand such initiatives, we should simultaneously ensure reservation to ensure some measure of safety. Reservation must be implemented as a matter of right, and not as privilege or charity.


  1. Deepa Mohan says:

    With my experiences using public transport (buses) in Bangalore, I would agree with your points. Women do need the reservation of seats. I hope the time will come when it might not be needed.

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