Feminist mapping initiative tries to reclaim Delhi, one dot at a time

Shrabonti Bagchi June 22, 2016 5 min

Earlier this year, the team at Hidden Pockets, a digital mapping startup founded by a young feminist lawyer, had a bizarre experience. Hidden Pockets puts services around sexual and reproductive health in Delhi on a digital map, and the team wanted to locate all of Delhi’s One-Stop Centres in one map. Announced by Union Minister for Women and Child Development Maneka Gandhi in March 2015, the One-Stop Centres (OSCs) were meant to help victims of rape and violence find a number of institutions under one roof, from medical professionals to police personnel and psychological counselors, so that they didn’t have to run between institutions for redressal. The centres were supposed to have been up and running by September 2015.

So the members of the Hidden Pockets team confidently set out to find these centres, in order to put the data on their online map. But here’s what happened: they did not find a single centre. The OSCs seemed to exist only on paper. “According to the Press Information Bureau (PIB), six had already been set up in Delhi. We went to five hospitals across the city: AIIMS, Safdarjung Hospital, RML Hospital, GTB Hospital and Deen Dayal Hospital. But when we went in search of these centres, forget functional centres – we found that barely anyone at the hospitals we visited even knew they were meant to have them,” wrote Hidden Pockets founder Jasmine Lovely George in a report for the website Ladies Finger in January 2016.

Odd and striking as this story is, it is just one of the reasons why collating data and location information about public institutions is necessary. Sometimes you dig up fascinating insights into how our country works. And though 27-year-old George didn’t exactly set out to unearth official ineptitude, the mapping study led her to a larger investigation, for which she and her team filed RTIs and did extensive footwork at the hospitals that were supposed to be equipped with One-Stop Centres.

Hidden Pockets locates services around sexual and reproductive health in Delhi on a digital map, and the three types of services currently represented are psychotherapists, abortion clinics in Delhi, and HIV and AIDS anti-retroviral therapy centres. “Google Maps is very functional, and often does not contain information on spaces that are a crossover between being public and also very personal,” says George. The idea is to collate information on things that are not shown on a map: places where one can get abortions, places where one can test for STIs , ART treatment for HIVs, free medical services, legal assistance, disabled friendly places. It is also true that the places one can most easily find information about via Google Maps often have a strong commerce angle. There is less incentive to collate detailed information about public health clinics and government hospitals.

Odd and striking as this story is, it is just one of the reasons why collating data and location information about public institutions is necessary. Sometimes you dig up fascinating insights into how our country works.

In fact, Hidden Pockets does not use Google for its customised maps, instead relying on CartoDB, a web-based solution for mapping and analyzing location data. George, who says she is “obsessed with maps and cartograpahy” is a fan of open software.

But mapping sexual and reproductive health services is not the only thing Hidden Pockets is interested in, though as George says, framing the project in “health” terms makes it more accessible to people in the initial days. Ultimately, the group also wants to map “pleasure points” of the city — spaces where women can move freely and confidently. “I hate to use the term “safe spaces” because that way we are giving in to this discourse that our cities are essentially unsafe for women,” says George, explaining that the impetus to start the project came in the aftermath of the Nirbhaya incident, when the predominant narrative of Delhi was as an unsafe city. “There was this whole network of CCTV cameras, there was countering violence with more violence, and paranoia. After a while, I started getting a little tired of this discourse. The image of Delhi had become a very negative one, and I didn’t believe it was wholly negative, and I should know because I grew up here,” says George. That’s where the idea of mapping places that would be “pleasurable and accessible, places where women would like to go” came from.

Founder Jasmine George during one of the night walks, which are an important part of the agenda to make women comfortable with the city. (Image: Facebook/hidden-pockets)

This particular map is still being seeded by offline events such as walking tours — especially night walks, which are a big part of the activities — of Delhi areas such as Mehrauli, Jamali Kamali and Seelampur. The midnight walk at Mehrauli has been particularly instructive. “During the walk, we would keep asking the women who had come with us if they felt safe. And it was interesting to note the class angle  — well, no one would actually come out and admit that there was a class angle to this, but the fact that this was a poorer area certainly played a role,” says George. The whole purpose of this mapping exercise is to show that spaces accessible only to those who can afford them — like malls and theatres and cultural hubs — are not the only ones that women can freely inhabit. There are also parks and streets and corners — hidden pockets, essentially — that are often welcoming and warm. For instance, the group found that walking around Daryaganj market in old Delhi, especially on Sunday mornings when there is a thriving street market for used books, is a pleasurable experience, as is going to Bangla Sahib Gurudwara at 2 am.

“We also encourage people to take lots of pictures during these walks and upload them later, so that we can make an attempt to seed the internet with positive images about Delhi,” says George.

Indeed, if there is a chance that Delhi can be reclaimed from the violent narrative that it has become part of since a fateful night in December 2012, the internet probably offers that chance.