In the wake of the brutal gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old physiotherapist on a Delhi bus in December, the focus in India has been on the treatment and safety of women across the country. There has also been an increase in security measures in public places like the metro in the eastern city of Calcutta.
Every day a team of 20 officers, 10 men and 10 women, patrol India’s oldest metro to make sure that men keep their hands to themselves.
The team includes Radhika (not her real name) who since 26 January has been travelling across the city in its crowded underground carriages and watching how men behave.
Sometimes she is dressed in her police uniform, but often she is undercover, wearing a colourful salwar kameez (long tunic and pyjama) or a sari to blend in with the female passengers.
Keeping a close eye on what is going on around her, she tells me that this is not just a job – she feels it is part of a change that India has to go through.
As soon she spots someone who is going to cause trouble or whose hands are beginning to stray, she walks up to them and calmly asks them to get off the train.
Some protest their innocence but most are so embarrassed that they quickly walk off.
“Men are now scared to harass women on the train as they know we are travelling in plainclothes and they might get caught,” she says.
‘Cover to harass’
Calcutta Metro Passengers have welcomed the presence of policewomen on trains
Every day, more that 625,000 people use the Calcutta Metro and it is the cheapest way to get around the city with most journeys costing just six rupees (11 cents; eight pence).
That means its carriages are crammed full of passengers and it is impossible to avoid physical contact with the people around you.
“Getting a seat on an underground train is as hard as winning the lottery. It also gives some men the opportunity and the cover to harass women,” says the metro deputy general manager Protyush Kumar Ghosh.
India has been debating the issue of women’s safety since the murder and gang rape of the young woman in Delhi.
Since then, more and more women in Calcutta have come forward and talked about their experiences of travelling on the metro.
Mr Ghosh says “as complaints grew, we had to take action to make sure that India’s oldest metro was also its safest”.
‘No accident’ – So they came up with the idea of the undercover cops, and it seems to have had an impact.
In February, five men were arrested for harassing women and there were 30 other incidents reported.
That is a drop of around 50% from the previous month.
“Troublemakers are now scared that they will be caught and so they are changing their behaviour,” Mr Ghosh says.
Radhika says she can tell as soon as a man boards the train if he is going to cause trouble.
When I ask her how she can tell, specially in carriages where it is impossible to avoid touching someone, she replies: “I am a woman – I know. When a man touches a woman twice or three times, then it’s no accident.”
Twenty-one-year-old Shristi Das uses the underground every day.
She tells me that her parents get worried when she comes back late on the metro after work and adds that she hates the way that some men leer at her and try to touch her.
Housewife Bhavana Mishra says she tries to stand in the “women’s only” section but that is not always possible.
“I am not sure why we women have to go through this,” she says.
Both are glad that female officers are now patrolling the underground and it makes them feel safer.
But, Ms Das says, “you cannot police the whole of the metro. We need men to change and that is going to take some time”.
Until they do, Radhika and her colleagues will be keeping a close eye on them