New Delhi, capital of the Indian imperium, wears its self-image of being a global city on its asphalt. Some, 33,198 km of road make up the arteries, veins and capillaries that keep the city thrumming, day and night, dusk and dawn. Yet this majestic capital of the republic keeps failing the most basic test of a modern city: the simple transaction of a woman safely getting herself from one point in the city to another, using public transportation.

Funnily, it has always been like that in sada Dilli. As a diehard Bombayite, moving to Delhi in the early nineties had its share of traumas, linguistic and otherwise. But understanding that kanda-batata was now irrevocably aloo-pyaaz was the easy part. Traversing the city’s vast stretches from a home near IIT Gate to an office on Barakhamba Road and back every day by bus (the only means of public transport available in those days) was pure scary, especially as the air thickened with winter and darkness came in uninvited by 6pm.

Preparing for those rides were like preparing for the heptathlon. Bags (preferably sling bags) to fortress the front side of the body, one elbow positioned in an equilateral triangle formation to fend off all possible incursions from left and right, and the back placed firmly on a seat if possible or against a wall. Because luck was usually hard to come by in those sardine-packed tin cans on wheels, with one arm occupied in hanging on frayed rexine loop for life as the bus lurched on, the elbow had to be on vigilant duty, constantly swivelling around to discourage random horniness.

The more things change...

Over the years, as global capital flowed in, much changed in Delhi. Flyovers zoomed in and roads were broadened. Malls mushroomed and multiplexes beckoned. SUVs screeched passed and hummers hummed. Everybody got their cash from ATMs and their friends from Facebook. Conversations were largely mobile and entertainment increasingly virtual. There were now international stadia and Olympic-size swimming pools. High-rise condos and low-floored buses. Multispeciality cuisine and multispecialisation hospitals. Surveillance cameras and hi-tech security systems. As the metro spat out millions of commuters, world-class airports spewed out zillions of suitcase trolleys. Yes, Delhi certainly moved with the times.

But with all this, the city did not lose its essential character. It still enjoyed its aloo tikki and its dahi bhalla and it still continued to be the site of the most horrendous forms of sexual crimes Long before the gang rape on a chartered bus of a woman the media called Nirbhaya ‒ exactly two years ago ‒ it carried this reputation. And long after it, the notoriety still remained. It was a record of violence that was unbeaten and looks to be unbeatable.

Looking for alternatives

Meanwhile, the women of the Capital have refused to be cowed down by khap observations that jeans and chowmein cause rape and dodged patriarchal injunctions that a woman’s place is in the home, preferably in a salwar kameez. And they  continue to search for a safe commute and the right of free movement. Seeing that women have been assaulted in autorickshaws, gang-raped in buses, set upon in office-arranged cabs, attacked in airport taxis, abducted in car parks, shot at while driving their own cars, it would appear that the radio cab services, with their mobile connectivity, offered a safe alternative.

Over the last few years, they have steadily replaced the friendly neighbourhood taxi stand that Delhi had once sworn by, and have come to dominate the cityscape. The Uber taxi service, in focus for the most recent incident of rape in the city, claims to help you go places and give you a truly secure ride. But the Uber question is: how safe is that safe ride?

So far the City of Djinns has failed to exorcise the ghosts of sexual violence. Every now and then, it has gone through a long bout of self-introspection but has come up with very little by way of a solution.  What is clear though is that tech claims and taglines cannot be the answer to something as complex, multi-layered and resistant to correction as sexual violence against women.