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Joy of India's women-only trains

10 October 09 10:05 GMT

India recently introduced eight women-only trains in Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay), Calcutta and Madras (Chennai). Aimed at providing safety and comfort for growing numbers of working women, the "Ladies' Specials" have proved a big hit with their passengers, as the BBC's Geeta Pandey discovered in Delhi.

What's striking about the new trains - not counting the exclusively female passengers - is the bright colours. The front of the engine is painted blue and red and the carriages are bright yellow.

All eight coaches are interconnected and brightly lit. The cushioned seats are comfortable and ceiling fans make the journey pleasant on a humid evening.

'It's a joyride'

The train I take from Delhi travels 60km (37 miles) to the small station in Palwal in nearby Haryana state. It leaves Palwal in the morning and returns in the evening, with Sunday a day off.

My ticket costs 10 rupees (less than 20 US cents) and my fellow passengers are mostly office-goers and college students.

Among the passengers is Supriya Chatterjee who takes the train every evening as the time suits her.

"In regular trains there's a lot of confusion," she says.

"Most of the times we don't get a seat and have to travel standing. Also, there is no security on the train so there are cases of purse snatching.

"But such cases don't happen here. It's a joyride."

Sangeeta, a shy young woman who commutes daily from Faridabad to college in Delhi, says men often harass women on other trains.

"They touch and pinch."

She says travelling on the Ladies' Special makes her feel safe.

"Here nobody passes lewd comments. Nobody teases us - it's great."

For many years, most suburban trains have had a couple of coaches reserved for women. But some men always forced their way into their compartments.

A few years ago, the authorities began a drive called "Bhairavi" - intended to penalise men travelling in ladies-only coaches - but it didn't work.

"Sometimes men board the ladies' compartment and when we ask them to leave or get aside, they start to argue. They say that if ladies can travel in gents' compartments they should be able to travel in ladies' compartments," Sangeeta says.

'Godsend'

As the number of working women in India swelled over the past two decades, the two reserved coaches proved inadequate.

Sheila Sharma has been commuting by train for more than 25 years. She used to have to fight her way into the train and there would be lots of jostling.

"This is a godsend. We've been waiting for something like this for so long. We fought for a long time and then we got two coaches for women in local trains. But it was not enough, there were so many women. We didn't find space to sit. We used to feel so tired standing during the journey. But now we sit comfortably and the travel is good."

The Ladies' Specials are the brainchild of Railways Minister Mamata Bannerji, who announced the service in this year's railway budget.

"Our minister was very concerned about the safety and comfort of working women in the cities," Northern Railways general manager Vivek Sahai says.

"The women have ample space to sit comfortably so when they get home after a hard day's work, they can cook and look after their families."

Security is tight on the Ladies' Special. Five women constables and three male officers from the Railway Protection Force (RPF) patrol the aisles.

As the train halts at a station, assistant sub-inspector Prem Singh Varma steps down onto the platform to ensure men stay away.

"We tell them very politely that 'sir, this is a ladies' train. Please stay away, don't board this train.' If they try again, I tell them, 'if you travel on this train, then what's the point of having a women's special train?'"

Mr Varma says most men comply.

"But if anyone forces their way in, we take them to the police station and charge them with entering a ladies' train, and if they are ticketless then we charge them under that law too."

As the train halts at one of the stations en route, men waiting nearby do not seem too happy.

"Generally a man travels with his wife, or sister or daughter," said one disgruntled male passenger, Satya Pal.

But since this is a Ladies' Special, he has to travel separately.

"That's not practical. There should be some provision for men to travel on this train," Mr Pal said.

Liberating

Inside the train, however, women are enjoying themselves.

I join a group of young women chatting and laughing. One woman shows off her shopping, another tears opens a packet of crisps which is shared with friends.

In India's traditionally male-dominated, conservative north, the absence of men is quite liberating for the young women.

Management student Charu Dua says she is happy that men have been banished from the train and that she can travel to college and back home without a care in the world.

"We can laugh, we can sit where we want, we can do whatever we want, we feel free. We can sing a song, as loud as we want," she says.

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