The AFA is pleased to announce Jananie Kalyanaraman (advisor Akhil Gupta, UCLA) as our honorable mention for this year’s Dissertation Prize. Kalyanaraman’s paper, “Window seats: Transport and inequality in Bengaluru, India,” details the failures of high visibility transportation infrastructure projects in Bengaluru to facilitate the mobility, both physical and social, of poor, lower-caste women.
In Bengaluru city, parastatal public transit systems champion women’s empowerment and right to mobility with an emphasis on safety. They adopt protectionist measures such as seat segregation, the installation of CCTV cameras and use of smartphone apps. Meanwhile, mainstream feminism—by default middle class, upper caste, and metropolitan— fights for women’s equality from a more “cultural” perspective. In doing so, this form of feminism combats moral policing, protectionism, and reclaims equal and safe access for women to urban resources and spaces through “Reclaim the Night” marches and protests. These mainstream conversations, in combination with the public bus system’s revenue-generating logic (of allocating buses only on profitable routes and raising the bus fares) alienates communities of urban poor users (a majority of them women) both in terms of access to the bus system as well as discussions surrounding women’s mobility concerns. They often do not acknowledge hierarchies that exist and are produced even within these efforts at empowerment. This dissertation asks: how do urban poor women create access to transportation when the state fails to provide them with affordable and frequent access? In doing so, what is the symbolic value that transport systems assume for these women? Using insights from 17 months of fieldwork with urban poor women who have been forcibly evicted from slums and relocated in slum resettlement colonies in peripheral Bengaluru, this dissertation draws attention to alternative pathways of empowerment that are often invisible in mainstream discussions. Kalyanaraman’s research shows that the women engage in diverse tactics to arrange for transportation not merely to ensure safe access to livelihood, but also to ensure that their children are able to continue access to schools and colleges. Paying attention to these quieter tactics can inform policy on transport and equitable access, to address and empower these alternative pathways for meaningful emancipation.