Delhi policewomen ride out to the rescue of sexual harassment victims

New 600-strong motorcycle squad will hit the streets in December as part of effort to stop violence against women

Delhi police constables Sushila Meena, front, and Manju Devi stop to chat to students while returning from a training session for a new motorcycle patrol squad in the Indian capital on November 25, 2017. Amrit Dhillon for The National
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In the Indian capital’s narrow alleys, packed with people, cycle rickshaws, scooters, stray dogs and cows, police constable Sushila Meena used to feel frustrated when responding to calls from women complaining of sexual harassment. "By the time I got to the spot, through the traffic, I’d discover that my patrol van couldn’t squeeze through the lane and the offender had vanished long ago."

Now she will be able to respond much faster as part of a new motorcycle squad called Raftaar, Hindi for "speed", that is to start patrolling the streets of New Delhi next month.

The motorcycles not only enable a faster response to complaints but will also create a more visible police presence through more frequent patrols than police vans, which struggle to get through the congested traffic in a city of more than 25 million people and 10 million vehicles.

"We have realised that incidents of sexual harassment can only come down if the police are highly visible. That deters people and also reassures women that help is to hand,’ said Delhi police spokesman Dependra Pathak.

Crimes against women have been national concern ever since the fatal gang rape of a student in Delhi in 2012, with the public demanding action against perpetrators and the police under pressure to bring the figures down. Although there has been an increase in rapes reported in Delhi, with the police recording more than 2,150 case in 2016 — an increase of 67 per cent from 2012 — this has been attributed in part to more victims coming forward to report assaults.

The predominantly male police have in the past been reluctant to register complaints from women, leading to efforts to make the force more gender-sensitive. Hundreds of all-women police stations have been set up across the country to encourage women to report crimes. Two years ago, the government decided that one third of Delhi's police should be female. However, women still make up only 10 per cent of the 80,000-strong force.

Many experts feel that the single biggest deterrent to sexual violence or harassment is a stronger police presence in public. Mr Pathak says this is why 600-motorcycle Raftaar squad is being set up. A majority of the riders will be women.

An experienced rider who already occasionally patrols on motorcycle, Ms Meena has been put in charge of training the policewomen in the Raftaar squad. Every evening, she takes them for drills to a stadium near the Maurice Nagar police station in north Delhi, where she is posted. The motorcycles they are training on are old, but when the squad hits the streets next month they will have brand new bikes with GPS and be equipped with stun guns, body cameras and pepper spray.

Ms Meena's colleague, head constable Chanda Sagar, says the motorbike squad will be very useful for preventing "eve teasing" — an Indian term for public sexual harassment. "We have the Delhi University north campus here and lots of female students and hostels around. The moment they see us on our bikes on the streets — a man catcalling, touching a woman or following her — they will be scared off," she said.

Seeing policewomen on motorcycles not only makes women feel safer, but also allows for more interaction, Ms Meena said.  As she returns to the police station from a training session, she turns on the siren. Passers-by watch, intrigued at a policewoman on a motorcycle. She stops by a group of young women students to chat and let them know she is only minutes away if they are in trouble.

"In a police van, you are cut off a bit. On a motorbike, I feel I am much more accessible to the public," she said.

Ms Meena said preventing sexual crimes was crucial because the conviction rate is alarmingly low, which in turn  deterred women from them. According to Delhi police data, the conviction rate in 2015 was 29.37 per cent.

The city of Jaipur has had an all-female motorcycle squad since May that patrols around schools, colleges and temples to prevent sexual harassment, but it is still too soon to assess its effectiveness.

Ravi Kant, president of the Shakti Vahini women's rights group, agrees there is a need for deterrence but is not so sure that the women's motorcycle patrols would be enough.

"We need a proper strategy for preventing crimes against women, from more patrolling to more sensitive police to a higher conviction rate, for which it is essential that police do a thorough investigation," he said.

"Only all these measures taken together will make women feel more confident."