Indian Female Urban Planner makes cities safer for women

Nithya Raman's work is based on the lines of human rights and urban planning, mainly on the access of the urban poor to land and livelihoods. She has worked with different groups including Amnesty International, the Hazards Center, and the Unorganized Workers’ Federation. Nithya co-authored Clouds of Injustice, a report published by Amnesty International on the environmental and health impacts of the Bhopal gas leak of 1984, She is also trained as a classical dancer, and has performed solo and with groups in venues throughout India and abroad. Nithya graduated from Harvard University with a degree in political theory and has a Masters in urban planning from M.I.T.

 Nithya discussed on how women’s safety in India is closely linked to urban planning and maintenance, and why the issue of slums and land rights is close to her heart. Nithya said that there are actually two important biases among city planners and city managers that really prevent cities from being safer for women: first city streets are planned and built for cars rather than people. Secondly, there is a real bias against street vendors. These two biases often lead to the creation of wide streets that are empty of pedestrians, which can be very unsafe for women.

She also told what made her move to India after studying urban planning at MIT. She said, “I moved here after I finished my undergraduate degree at Harvard University. I was working in Delhi when I heard about a massive eviction of slums along the Yamuna River. I was shocked more than 100,000 people’s homes were demolished and the issue got barely any news coverage.” This incident made her realize that there is huge gap between the rich and the poor residents for space and resources in Indian cities, and that policymakers had not figured out how to mediate this conflict in a just and effective manner.

After the Yamuna Pushta eviction, she started working with the Hazards Center, an NGO in Delhi that coordinated an alliance of slum-dwellers organizations. My experience with the Hazards Center pushed me to study urban planning, so that I could return to India and continue working on these issues.

Nithya’s work on slums and land rights is closest to her heart. It was where I started thinking about cities and how they could be improved.

Cities are exciting places because they are full of possibilities. But policies in Indian cities right now are stacked against the poor. Poor people are priced out of the legal land market, so they settle in informal settlements. But most slums don’t have government recognition, and have no protection from eviction.

In Chennai, Delhi and many other Indian cities, a spurt of new infrastructure construction has meant that many slums have been evicted in the last decade, and residents have been left homeless. The slum dwellings are usually located on the outskirts of the city, far from residents’ sources of livelihood and far from good schools and subsidized government healthcare, leaving residents trapped in poverty. According to Nithya, “Indian cities can be places of real opportunity for all of their residents, and I believe that changing existing policies is key to achieving that vision.”