women of india, rural india, rural women, land ownership, land rights, gender disparity, gender inequality, feminism, women at work, women power, smart cities, gender lens

Smart Cities through the Gender Lens

By: Saraswati Raju
Smart cities are viewed essentially in terms of infrastructural facilities and ‘e-amenities’ aimed at improved governance, capital and investment. Although the improvement in overall governance and quality of life is laudable, understanding residents’ attitudes and behaviour towards women is also crucial.

The latest buzz with urban planners is the concept of smart cities. However, no concrete definition of what constitutes a smart city is available. According to the government official document, ‘the conceptualisation of smart city varies from city to city and country to country, depending on the level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of city residents. A smart city would have a different connotation in India as compared to say, Europe. Even in India, there is no one way of defining a smart city’ (GoI, 2015).

The Smart City Mission statement (GoI, 2015) identifies adequate and assured water and electricity supply, sanitation including solid waste management, efficient urban mobility and public transport, affordable housing especially for the poor, robust IT connectivity and digitalisation, good governance especially e-Governance and citizen participation, sustainable environment, safety and security of citizens particularly for women, children and the elderly, health and education as the core concerns of a smart city.

Smart cities are thus imagined essentially in terms of infrastructural facilities and ‘e-amenities’ through heavy reliance on technology, capital and investment. Although the improvement in overall governance and quality of life through these means is a welcome gesture, it is also worth asking as to whether smart cities would really be considered smart and modern if their residents continue to be bound by conventional norms and attitudes, especially towards women and the elderly.

The urban identity

Urban living, particularly in cities, is identified with a certain sense of anonymity that helps people overcome their age-old practices, and triumph over socio-cultural barriers posed by caste, ethnicity, religion and gender in accessing opportunities. They are also perceived as spaces of transition between tradition and modernity. And yet, the linear trajectories of cities have long been questioned and contested. Most Indian cities are organically grown entities, embedded in their regional surroundings and retaining rural traces in their value systems.  They continue to display an ambiguous mix of both, the so-called modern trends exist in close proximity with traditional behavioural norms.

In decoding this duality, the gendered lives in cities as cases in point have been studied. Cities can be smart and work as harbingers of social change and modernity provided socio-cultural constructs affecting women’s lives are free from feminine and masculine stereotypes in society. One has to understand the socio-cultural confinements within which women continue to be framed in metro cities, thus curtailing the freedoms that could help realise their full potential for shaping truly smart cities.

Freedom and smart cities

Amartya Sen, in his Development as Freedom (1999) provides a complex account of various kinds of freedom; one of which is women’s freedom to participate in paid work outside their homes and its interconnections with other forms of freedom. Augmented access to employment opportunities, financial independence and progressive educational attainments witnessed in contemporary India should presumably enable women to exercise ‘their reasoned agency’ as Sen would argue. The question is does paid employment necessarily increase women’s freedom and agency? Christine Koggle (2003) had grappled with this question almost a decade back.

Revisiting this rather old debate once again with particular reference to the information and communications technology (ICT) and business process outsourcing (BPO) sectors will throw some light on the relationship between employment and women’s freedom. These sectors are particularly referred to because at one point they heralded a whole ‘new generation jobs’ (Jose, 2009).

The female workforce therein consists largely of unmarried young women who are well-educated, and often technically trained. They come from urban areas, and they belong to the middle class and upper and middle castes. These combinations raise people’s expectations, at least theoretically, as regards the empowered status of women. Ironically, ground realities belie such expectations.

Drawing upon a small but impressive array of literature in recent years, from metro cities in particular, it can be seen that despite the glamour and an invoked sense of articulate modernity (Tara & Ilavarasan 2011), women in information technology (IT) and BPO sectors continue to operate within a ‘this far and no further’ paradigm. That is to say, they can adopt certain practices but still remain confined to essentialised behavioural norms; the ‘no further’ limit being (re)constituted by persistent gendered constructs that continue to encode women’s primary place within domesticity even as the confining vocabulary undergoes some cosmetic changes.

 In Kolkata, about 450 women from the ICT and BPO sectors as well as traditional sectors such as teaching were surveyed by Tanusree Paul in her doctorate thesis Gender and reconfigured urban spaces: A case study of Kolkata. According to her findings, more than half of the women surveyed from all sectors complained of the lack of freedom of physical mobility, as well as mobility between jobs, as a telling obstacle which hinges on their gendered identities. Marriage and the contingent array of responsibilities appeared to inhibit the careers of all women alike, particularly those working in the information technology enabled service (ITES) and retail sectors because of erratic shifts and limited weekly-offs.

Another doctorate thesis Socio-spatial embeddedness of cities: A case study of Delhi by Preetha Chatterjee, reaffirms how women’s work is seen as a secondary source of income, and an emergency measure rather than ensuring economic returns for education and self-realisation. Academic or teaching jobs and home-based work are preferred since they can be easily combined with domestic responsibilities. Besides, they were also seen as ‘safe’ jobs for women as compared to jobs in ITES and media that involve free intermixing and unrestricted work schedules.

Observations on BPO services in Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai, which provide a broader view of the social landscape that women are anchored to in these metros, prove that the arrival of a ‘new’ middle class does not necessarily herald an era of unprecedented personal freedoms for women (Nadeem, 2009).

The above few examples give a glimpse of the interface between work and mobility as far as women in urban areas are concerned. What about violence against women in public places in India? A baseline survey was conducted by New Concept Information Systems (NCIS) on behalf of Jagori in 2010 (Jagori & UN Women, 2011) with respect to violence in public spaces; including the forms of harassment faced by women, the factors contributing to them, societal response, and the role of the police. This survey was conducted on 5010 men and women, cutting across class, age and profession through interviews in a variety of public spaces, including markets, parks, bus stops and residential areas. The perceptions and responses of men and by-standers are accounted too so as to gain an understanding of how the people respond to such blatant violations and not just the violations per se.

An overwhelmingly high percentage of respondents in all categories were found to believe that sexual harassment of women was the single most important factor that rendered Delhi unsafe. Factors that contributed to lack of safety included absence of gender-inclusive and functional infrastructures. The findings revealed that buses were the most common public spaces where maximum sexual harassment occurred. The behaviour and conduct of men in public spaces, particularly on roads aggravated insecurity on the part of women.

A research study on women and public spaces in Mumbai (Phadke et al., 2013) which focused on infrastructure that facilitates access to public space for pleasure, observes that women who desire to be ‘flaneurs’ or ‘flaneuses’ (wanderers) is fraught with obstacles. Among these are ideological obstacles with regard to the ‘proper’ place of women as well as material obstacles such as the lack of adequate infrastructure which prevents easy wandering in the city. The researchers argue that the right to pleasure, by default, must include the right against violence which can be checked with adequate infrastructural provisions such as better transport, proper street lighting, public toilets and policies recognising people’s fundamental right to access public space. It is the city administration’s responsibility to provide these facilities. According to the researchers, public spaces and infrastructure are usually designed for an abstract generic user, which essentially is the male. Not just gender, but all manner of politics; class, caste, religious, sexual, physical ability, etc. are part of imagining this ‘neutral’ user.

Non-availability of adequate infrastructure for women is often justified by planners and decision-makers in terms of women’s absence in public spaces. This argument can be turned on its head, if women users were to be asked this question. They may argue that the lack of public toilets makes it even harder to access and utilise public spaces at night. Attitudinal changes are often seen as time-consuming, but the provision of infrastructure can be a simple one-time administrative policy decision to facilitate legitimate access for women to public spaces (Phadke et al., 2013).

Plight of the Elderly

India’s metro cities are not unsafe just for women, but for the aged population too. According to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data for 2014, Delhi is the most unsafe city as regards the overall number of crimes against senior citizens. It is estimated that ‘with a rate of 89 crimes per 1 lakh elderly population, senior citizens in the National Capital are almost five times more likely to become the victim of a crime as compared to the rest of India’ (Tiwari, 2015).

In a 2011 HelpAge India study (Mishra et al., 2013) conducted in 12 major Indian cities, different kinds of abuses against elderly people were recorded. It found that 60 per cent of the elderly are abused verbally, 48 per cent physically, and about 35 per cent emotionally and economically. Furthermore, the study added major types of crimes faced by the elderly are burglary, molestation and criminal acts.


For smart cities to be really smart, the vision of the Mission should embrace people and citizens at large. Women and the elderly, in particular, will have to be kept at the heart of the planning to totally wipe off all traces of an environment that facilitates crime, molestation and insecurity. It must be capable of inspiring confidence, and not fear among women, and senior citizens. Enhancement of technology can only add, but never replace such concerns.


Chatterjee, Preetha. (2013). Socio-spatial Embeddedness of Cities: A Case Study of Delhi (Unpublished doctoral thesis). Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Jagori & UN Women. (2011). Safe cities free of violence against women and girls initiative. Report of the Baseline Survey Delhi 2010. Retrieved from http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Baseline-Survey_layout_for-Print_12_03_2011.pdf.

Jose, S. (2009). Women, Paid Work and Empowerment in India: A Review of Evidence and Issues. Centre for Women’s Development Studies, New Delhi.

Koggel, C. (2003). Globalization and women’s paid work: Expanding freedom. Feminist Economics, 9(2-3): 163-183. doi:10.1080/1354570022000077935.

Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India. (2015). Smart cities: Mission and guidelines. p5. Retrieved from http://smartcities.gov.in/writereaddata/SmartCityGuidelines.pdf.

Mishra, A. J., & Patel, A.B. (2013). Crimes against the Elderly in India: A Content Analysis on Factors causing Fear of Crime. International Journal of Criminal Justice Sciences, 8(1): 13-23.

Nadeem S. (2009). Macaulay’s (Cyber) Children: The Cultural Politics of Outsourcing in India. Cultural Sociology, 3(1): 102-122. doi: 10.1177/1749975508100673.

Paul, Tanusree. (2013). Gender and Reconfigured Urban Spaces: A Case Study of Kolkata (Unpublished doctoral thesis). Centre for the Study of Regional Development, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

Phadke, S., Ranade, S., & Khan, S. (2013). Invisible women. Index on Censorship, 42(3) 40-45. doi:10.1177/0306422013500738.

Sen, A. (1999). Development as Freedom, New York: Anchor Books. pXII.

Tara, S., & P. V. Ilavarasan. (2011). Work: A Qualitative Study of Unmarried Women Call Center Agents in India. Marriage & Family Review, 47(4), 197–212.

Tiwari, Deeptiman. (2015, August 20). Delhi most dangerous for senior citizens shows NCRB data. The Times of India. Retrieved from http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/delhi/Delhi-most-dangerous-for-senior-citizens-shows NCRB-data/articleshow/48550628.cms.

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