SCD projects

The occupation of space, hierarchy and intersectionality in Mumbai's suburban trains

Annelies Kusters

completed  (click CC for subtitles in English or Dutch)

Deaf commuters on trains in Mumbai tend to travel in “handicapped compartments”.
Because of Mumbai’s peninsular geography, its resulting population density and the heavy use of the city’s two suburban train lines, trains are packed for many hours per day. The “handicapped compartments” on each train are reserved for people with physical disabilities, who often have difficulties travelling in the dangerously overcrowded general or ladies compartments. Deaf people travel in the “handicapped compartments” because the availability of space allows them to communicate in sign language, which is impossible in the other overcrowded compartments. Deaf people of different backgrounds, ages and genders meet each other strategically and incidentally in these compartments, which has in turn strengthened links in the Mumbai deaf community. The “handicapped compartment” is the most central place for deaf people in Mumbai to exchange news and gossip and discuss various deaf-related issues.  

After initial research in 2007, this more in-depth study investigates the role of gender and ability when negotiating access to the compartments, and more importantly, seats. Deaf people’s right to travel in the compartments has been contested in the past, but over the years their presence has become accepted. Deaf people’s travelling in the compartments has caused friendships to emerge between deaf and otherwise disabled people, and many people who travel in the compartments know (basic) Indian Sign Language or can communicate fluently through gesturing. However, deaf people’s right to occupy seats (rather than standing upright) in the compartment is still a topic of conflict.

Access to the compartment is negotiated in various ways by a more and more diverse array of people. For example, the presence of deaf women in the compartments has greatly increased over the past few years due to the growing size of the compartments and their changed design. Still, whilst deaf men are more focused on travelling in the handicapped compartments, deaf women and deaf hijras (people who are neither man nor woman) strategically decide whether to travel in the ladies compartments (first and second class) or handicapped compartments. The growth in compartment size has not only resulted in deaf women feeling comfortable in the compartments, but also in the presence of many (non-disabled) people who are not allowed to travel in the compartments but do so in order to avoid the dangerously overcrowded parts of the trains. This includes people who fake deafness or other disabilities/illnesses, policemen, elderly people, poor people without a ticket, hijras, sick people, and schoolchildren. Although some people are not tolerated, there’s ambivalence as to the presence of others and ambivalence about who has the right to sit. This research therefore looks into how people negotiate (the right to) access the compartments, and more importantly, the right to seats. The grounds on which they do so are also studied, taking into account the role of gender, age, power, and various levels of ability.