While the Indian metropolis of Kolkata might not be as dangerous for women as other cities like Mumbai and Delhi, sexual harassment of females remains a daunting problem in the former capital of the British Raj.
Girls and women are particularly vulnerable to verbal abuse, molestation, sexual assault and worse in the city’s mass transit system – as they are in virtually all modes of public transportation across India.
In the wake of the extremely high-profile gang-rape (and subsequent death) of a young Indian medical student in a private bus in Delhi late last year, city officials in Kolkata have taken steps to ease the discomfort and danger endured by women on public trains.
The BBC reported that the Kolkata Metro, which serves more than 600,000 people daily and remains the cheapest form of transport in the city, has installed a group of 20 undercover police officers – including women -- to patrol the railways daily to monitor the behavior of men.
"Men are now scared to harass women on the train as they know we are traveling in plainclothes and they might get caught," a female undercover cop told BBC.
Protyush Kumar Ghosh, the deputy general manager of Kolkata Metro, explained that rapid transit is a prime territory for predatory men because it is so crowded.
"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," he said.
Men in the Metro “stick too close for comfort and brush their hands against you,” complained Jyotsna Saren to the Times of India, while other men “stare and make lewd gestures.”
“Women who take the Metro have to face all kinds of harassment," she added.
Ghosh said that in response to a wave of complaints from beleaguered female passengers, he decided to implement the undercover police program.
Last month, five men were arrested for bothering women, although that is likely a drop in the bucket to the actual number of harassment incidents.
"Troublemakers are now scared that they will be caught and so they are changing their behavior," Ghosh added.
Still, 20 officers can hardly cause a dent in a city as huge as Kolkata, once known as Calcutta.
A young woman named Shristi Das who rides the Metro daily complained to the BBC: "You cannot police the whole of the Metro. We need men to change, and that is going to take some time.”
Indian and Bengal media are filled with stories of men bothering, harassing and abusing women in public – but there appears to be a more determined effort by women now to report these crimes to the police.
"In the last few months, there has been a sudden spurt in recording of complaints of crimes against women,” crime commissioner Pallab Kanti Ghosh told TOI. “One of the reasons is that more and more women are now stepping out to fight for justice, shaking off their inhibitions.”
A recent survey by the TOI indicated that three out of every four women in Kolkata feel unsafe in public, while one-third feel Kolkata is just as dangerous as Delhi. More than half feel the need to carry some kind of weapon on their person for protection.
In a high-profile case, a science student was molested while riding a bus in Kolkata in January – she was forced to jump out of the moving vehicle to save herself from rape.
Sucheta Lahiri, a college student herself, told TOI that the January incident has changed her views of public transport.
"Even public buses are no longer safe. After the Science College student was molested, I have become extremely conscious while boarding a bus. I get palpitations if I find indecent looking men around. I really do not understand why men have to make it so unsafe for us," she said.
“But ignoring these incidents as part of the daily hassle is not acceptable. It will only make these offenders bolder. We must fight back."
A 30-year-old Kolkata woman named Sharmili Dasmar said she takes precautions to reduce the likelihood of sexual harassment in public.
"My profession requires me to return late. I no longer wear a shirt and trousers as it draws stares from fellow bus passengers. Though not all men are lecherous, there are quite a few that will ogle, pass lewd comments and even try to feel you up. I get angry when I hear someone claiming Kolkata is a liberal city. We are simply hypocritical," she said.
However it is unclear of the incidence of violence against women in Bengal is increasing or if police are simply receiving from complaints from the public.
What cannot be doubted, however, is that Bengal, like all of India, is rapidly changing from a nation of rural villages to an urban megalopolis – along with changing cultural and moral standards.
Surajit Mukhopadhyay, sociologist at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, explained to TOI: "Kolkata always had a community feeling. But this is breaking down due to relocation and translocation of communities.”
Indeed, the days of Kolkata as a beacon of safety for women have vanished.
“The sense of comfort that was a pride of every Kolkatan has vanished,” said women rights activist Saswati Ghosh. “It's a terrible thing. Places… in the heart of the city turn unsafe for women after 7 pm. While the government splurges on decorative lights across the city, it lets bus-stands in the central business district to remain [poorly] lit.”
The Bengali writer Suchitra Bhattacharya worries that Kolkata is becoming like Delhi and that the plight of women in the city will only worsen, especially for poorer females.
“It is really sad that Kolkata has become so unsafe. Unless a social change happens, this will get worse," she said. "We must stop looking at women as commodities. While middle-class men generally respect women, there is an affluent section which doesn't. Also, we have a large underprivileged, uneducated section which continues to disrespect women. They believe women are there to be abused, molested and raped. Unfortunately, this section is growing in number and the effects are there for all to see."