Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Kerala - Not Safe for Women to Travel

The winter months saw us visiting my mother’s ancestral home in Aymanam, a small village in Kerala’s Kottayam district. This was the time the hill schools closed for a long winter vacation.
Aymanam  Photo courtesy Oommen John 

We would set off, long before the first rays of the morning sun peeked over the mountains in front of Nenagh. The previous day, I would have walked through the orchard with its barren, lichen covered branches bidding farewell to beloved haunts and hideouts. There was always a feeling of sadness as we drove down; with not a squeak out of us, children. 
The ghat road was not as broad as it is now and traffic was mostly trucks carrying supplies to the hills. My father liked these early starts and very rarely did we meet anyone we knew on the ghat section. We would be at the areca nut plantation at dawn and my father would halt under a particular tree so that we could divest ourselves of the woollies.
Soon we would be full of excitement of meeting cousins, of playing in the paddy fields and of course, the most fabulous food ever, cooked with so much love by my grandmother. Even today, my mouth waters when I think of fish fries made from freshly caught fish, of karimeen pollichathu et al. The highlight of the three months would be a river trip in a vallom following the course of the beautiful Meenachil river from Aymanam to Kumarkom, where we would visit cousins.  
Meenachil river: My heart weeps for you.  Photo OJ
As we grew up, we started using public transport and it is then we encountered the perverted behavior of the mallu male. There were men who exposed themselves, who fingered and accosted not just girls, but boys too, at all times of the day and night; the behavior which is very much a part and parcel of everyday life in Kerala today.
Visits to Kerala became rare and after a point, one’s memories were just of the serene backwaters, the karimeen fry and the beautiful scenery; and I had forgotten all vile behavior which one is exposed to.  It all came back to me on a recent visit. At Thrissur bus stand, I messaged a former colleague to tell him that I was in his home town. His response was ominous. “I hope you are not there alone!”
I was so provoked about the experience at the Thrissur bus stand that I wrote to the Chief Minister of Kerala and the Secretary Tourism about this. What is given below is the letter.
On a recent visit to Kerala, my husband and I were very shocked by the behavior of the men. A large number of them were drunk and some of them were also misbehaving and sexually harassing the women.
The bus to Bangalore, on which we had reserved seats, was scheduled to leave the Thrissur bus stand at 11.30 pm. It was delayed by one hour. The long wait for the bus quickly became unbearable because of the behavior of these men who were hanging about at the bus stand. There were a few benches provided for passengers, but they were already taken. This meant that we had to stand. And to our horror we found that we were the target for many miscreants at the bus stand. We found that the safest way to wait for the bus was to stand with our backs to the wall holding our bags against our chests. To add to our misery, my husband and I were subjected to verbal abuse as well; as we dealt with drunken, lunging men, mosquitoes and breathed in the overpowering stench of urine.
On the same day, two women, one of them a foreigner, were travelling in a crowded train from Kollam to Ernakulam. As they could not find a seat, the two girls climbed onto the top berth. They were shocked and disgusted when an old man on the berth opposite started jerking off. They were more shocked when friends told them that this is not a new problem, and this is something that women in Kerala have been dealing with on a daily basis.  Even celebrities like Sunanda Pushkar are not spared.
In my younger days, it was a known fact that it was unsafe for a woman to travel alone in Kerala, especially at night. But today, with the focus on tourism and the high literacy level, it is shocking to think that the level of safety in Kerala is much lower than any other South Indian city.
As a journalist, I have travelled alone to many parts of India and also to a few international cities. Nowhere have I felt as demeaned as I did that night in Thrissur! The irony of it is that this is a state which is said to be tourist friendly!
Take a look at the statistics. According to the Kerala Government’s Draft Tourism Policy 2011, over 6.5 lakh tourists visited Kerala in 2010 and tourism receipts amounted to Rs37.97 billion; over the same period 86 lakh domestic tourists visited the state. Many of the visitors, both international and domestic are women. Studies done by tourism bodies and by independent travel solutions providers have indicated that the number of women traveling alone or in women only groups has increased. According to the women of all categories and ages are expected to fuel "an explosive growth in the travel industry. It is estimated that women will spend about $125 billion on travel in 2013." As a state which calls itself ‘God’s Own Country’ and has an economy geared to tourism, this segment of the travelers cannot be ignored.
I have had a firsthand experience of the ordeals faced by women when I traveled by bus from Mysore to Ernakulam. On the brighter side, the pinching and pawing on the buses has reduced mainly because the crew is proactive. The fellow with itchy fingers is often thrown out of the bus. The next problem faced by women travelers, is a pan Indian one, that is, is the absence of safe and clean toilets. Kerala should take a lead in this area, as it has done in tourism promotion.
It is time, pay and use toilets are installed and also ensured that they are kept clean. The travelling public will pay for this facility. If and when it is done, please advise your planners to plan for 20 or more toilets.
As the Chief Minister of the most literate state in India, I request you to address these issues at the earliest and let all visitors enjoy the beauty of Kerala, unsullied by filthy toilets and lecherous men. I must add that as a Malayalee, I was saddened, by my experience.
A few humble suggestions that may help to alleviate this problem:
A study has to be undertaken to find out the reasons behind the public sexual perversions displayed by the men in Kerala. 
You could start an awareness initiative along with religious groups and NGOs. The awareness should begin in school. The punishment for such sexual offences should be stern and instant.
A police booth or the presence of the Tourism police at bus stations may help.
Pay and use clean toilets.