How to make Mumbai a feminist city

How urban planning needs to pay attention to gender and recognise that women and men experience cities differently.

The Mumbai Development Plan (DP), a statutory document which lists policies and proposals for land-use in an area, has undergone a tumultuous journey.

First proposed in 2015, it was scrapped owing to a number of serious flaws, and a new committee was set up.

Around the same time, women in the city started to raise clamour for how the development plan needs to pay attention to gender and recognise that women and men experience cities differently.  Led by the Akshara Centre, a non-profit working for women’s rights, the activists advocated for a chapter on gender in the DP. But what got their demand accepted was one key argument that has puzzled social scientists for the past many years: the falling female labour force participation numbers. 

The current female workforce participation rate as part of the formal labour force is 20.8%, almost 17 percentage points below from 37% in 2001. Within this, the urban female labour force component of the workforce defies all expectations. In 2019-2020, it was at 9.7% against 11.3% among rural workforce according to data by Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. 

“When we asked how can India’s financial capital not support women in the labour force, it found favour across party lines,” Nandita Shah, Co-director of Akshara Centre says. That’s what gave fillip to women-focussed land-use planning in the DP. 

Why feminist urban planning? 

“The entire conversation in urban planning is constructed through the male gaze,” Lubaina Rangwala, Senior Manager – Urban Development & Resilience, World Resources Institute, India, says.

Men have dominated government’s town planning departments and architecture firms and taken all the big decisions about urban development. Look around at flyovers swelling over our cities in their clover leaf grandeur. Indian cities are meant to be navigated by cars, the most telling example of how male-focussed the conversation is.

The single most famous piece of writing on urban design: The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written by a woman: Jane Jacobs. Many argue that Jane Jacobs founded the urbanism movement with beliefs such as “eyes on the street”, “mixed-use planning”, and the importance of “human-scale design”. Unlike Jacobs, too few women have been allowed entry in this niche space. 

Representative image

Over the years, women have led conversations about reclaiming the city but in bureaucratic echelons, planning for women is still looked at purely from a safety perspective. And all too often the idea of safety becomes about control and surveillance, instead of responding to women’s needs. “Walk in mid-and-high income neighborhoods, and you are walking along compound walls,” Lubaina says. “The city’s response of “safety” here would be to install CCTV cameras which is a silly way of solving the problem”.

Read more: 1.5 cr people walk to work, but Mumbai doesn’t prioritise pavements

Most parts of Mumbai have a vibrant street life, but even in the dense city, there are parts that are purely commerical zones. When Nandita and others were advocating for the insertion of gender mainstreaming in the development plan, they were clear about one thing. Let’s not make another Bandra Kurla Complex (BKC). Mumbai’s commercial hub, best-accessed by cars, BKC is a high-rise ghost town after office hours. 

Mixed-used neighbourhoods

This idea of “mixed-use” or that no neighbourhood should be only commercial or industrial is something Nandita says they had to drill focus on. “When we are talking about city planning, we’re talking about land use, and we had to convert all demands into land use demands.”

What emerged were land parcel reservations to cater to women’s needs. These include multipurpose housing for working women, childcare centers, skilled training centers, hawking spaces for women, as well as public toilets. 

Nandita has had to wade through questions of whether these reservations lead to segregation, creating “women only” spaces in the city. “Think of it as the local train”, she says. “There’s a women’s compartment and then there is a general compartment, not the men’s compartment.”

Many planners believe that urban planning cannot be approached through the lens of segregation, but Nandita believes that the intention is not segregation but support, and within this is embedded the idea of feminist city planning. 

“Lack of adequate safe transport and care work (which is taking care of children and the elderly) hinder women’s participation in the labour market in Indian cities, Sripad Motiram, Associate Professor, University of Massachusetts, told Citizen Matters in November 2020. Recognising these barriers is the first step to build more inclusive cities. 

Read more: Can an urban income guarantee scheme reduce unemployment in cities?

Cities that support care-givers

“Women make the most non-motorised trips in the household,” Lubaina says, from grocery shopping to dropping children to school. This should provoke planners to think how streets should be designed differently. Or take childcare: it’s understood that women drop out of the labour force because of childcare responsibilities. But hidden behind this fact is the suggestion that childcare is solely a woman’s responsibility. Including childcare as part of gender in the DP emboldens this worldview. Nandita agrees. “We are responding to a practical need, and not making a strategic shift. The truth is that the lack of childcare facilities is restricting women’s ability to go to work.”

Lubaina puts it squarely: As Indian cities are made of nuclear families, there’s a problem of caregiving, it is not a problem of the women alone. And the way to tackle this needs more thought. “There should be a separate policy on caregiving, perhaps a different chapter in the DP,” she says.

Nandita and other activists’ work of including gender in the development plan has now expanded into getting the proposals implemented. She, along with other bureaucrats, architects, and academics is part of an advisory committee formed to discuss policy formulation and implementation. This part is as critical as the ideas themselves.

All too often frameworks of inclusion and support become about control, and the committee seems to be aware of it. “Like with multipurpose-housing,” Nandita says “it shouldn’t become a hostel with a curfew and that’s something that should be part of the guidelines. Similarly, with skill centers, we are discussing what kind of skills must be imparted.”

“Feminist planning should be to build an environment of care,” Lubaina says. And to do that ideas hitherto ignored like femininity, but also queerness, in planning need to come front and centre. 

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