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Mobility of urban working women in India: study of Jalandhar in north India

Mobilité des femmes actives en Inde: étude de Jalhandar, Inde du Nord
Vandana Vasudevan
p. 25/11/2020


Le recensement indien de 2011 a collecté, pour la première fois depuis sa création, des chiffres ventilés par sexe sur le trajet vers le travail selon deux dimensions : la durée des trajets et les modes de transport. Ces données ont été analysées dans le cadre d'une thèse de doctorat sur la mobilité des femmes qui travaillent en milieu urbain dans les petites villes de l'Inde, achevée en mai 2019. L'objectif de cet article est de présenter les données du recensement et d'éclairer ces chiffres avec les expériences vécues des femmes qui travaillent sur leur voyage au travail, recueilli grâce à la recherche primaire dans l'une des villes étudiées - Jalandhar dans la province du Punjab. Cette approche permet d’humaniser les données quantitatives et de montrer comment le manque de participation de l’État à la résolution des problèmes de transport urbain affecte la vie quotidienne des femmes. L'importance de l'étude réside également dans le fait que la mobilité des femmes urbaines dans les pays d'Asie du Sud est peu comprise. Des tentatives comme celle-ci peuvent ouvrir des voies pour penser selon le genre tout en formulant des politiques.

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The author wishes to thank Professor Nicolas Buclet and Sonia Chardonnel of Laboratoire PACTE, Grenoble for their valuable feedback in improving this paper.

1. Background: Working Women in urban India

1In the past decade, India has seen a steady decline in Female Labor Force Participation (FLFP) from 37 % in 2004 to an all-time low of 27 percent in 2014, according to the International Labour Organization’s Global Employment Trends 2013 report which places India 120th in a list of 131 countries surveyed in terms of women’s labor force participation. Further, it is observed that this statistic tends to worsen as one moves from rural to urban settings, despite the higher number of industries and more job opportunities present in cities. Several viewpoints have been put forth to explain this phenomenon.

2Empirical evidence shows that India’s high economic growth has increased men’s income without opening up new opportunities for women, female participation in the labor market actually declines because they can afford not to work (Chatterjee, Desai, and Vanneman 2014).

3Further, Indian women face several barriers to joining the workforce. In a UNDP survey (UNDP, 2015) conducted in four big Indian cities Mumbai, Bangalore, Hyderabad & the Delhi National Capital Region among women aspiring to work, nearly 50 percent of women and girls reported that their aspirations to participate in the workforce are constrained by their engagement in domestic chores and responsibilities.

4Safety & security concerns, mainly while commuting but also in the workplace, is another significant barrier to realizing workforce participation aspirations. Working hours, transportation facilities, lack of proper maternity leave policies in smaller firms, and absence of institutionalized daycare centers add to women’s difficulties to work and manage home simultaneously.

5The burden of care prevents women from joining male dominated jobs which are less flexible in terms of hours and leave restricting them to part time jobs or those in the informal sector. Women are concentrated in the informal sector in urban areas- as street vendors, construction workers, domestic maids, cleaners in offices and schools, etc. drawing a relatively low income and working without benefits such as health insurance, maternity leave, etc.

6According to a recent World Bank Report titled “Precarious drop: Reassessing Patterns of Female Labor Force Participation in India” (Andres et al, 2014), women’s work participation in urban India in the formal, organized sector is only 20.5 % as of 2011-12, which is among the lowest in the world. More worryingly, this number has fallen from about 25 % in the 2004-05. This is despite women ‘s education levels rising significantly in the same period. While no large scale study has been done to establish a causality between mobility issues and the low participation of women in the workforce, it could arguably be an important factor.

7Lack of affordable and convenient transport options continues to hinder many Indian women from accessing better paying jobs that maybe spatially dispersed in their cities. Urban sprawl has increased the distance between home and work while transport options have not kept pace.

8Women are known to forgo an opportunity to work outside their neighborhoods if they perceive transport fares and services to be expensive and unreliable (Allen, 2018). Residential location has spatial implications on the journey to work. Peripheral low income areas tend to be poorly linked to main transport routes and places of employment. Transport services are often provided at high costs, with limited service in off-peak routes and through multiple stops, adding to longer travel times and waits. Lower income women are worst affected by these developments as they are time poor, less able to hire help to manage the home and can ill afford the high costs of transport. One study conducted in Delhi found that when poor families were forcibly resettled to the outskirts form the center, accessibility to their old jobs deteriorated as the transportation cost to reach their workplaces was prohibitive and their time poverty multiplied (Anand, A. and G. Tiwari , 2006).

9Alberts et al.’s study (2016) of urban peripheral communities in Chennai, India shows that when slum populations are re-located it is women who have to most adopt to the changed conditions. As they are isolated from their previous livelihoods, there is a greater demand on them for physical mobility and the accompanying problems of safety, affordability, and accessibility become further exacerbated.

2. Objective of the study

10The objective of this research was to examine the mobility of urban Indian working women in small town urban India both quantitatively and qualitatively. Like in most other parts of the world, in India too, researchers, geographers, sociologists and economists have been focusing their attention on the top layer of the urban hierarchy and routinely cultivating a metropolis-biased vision. As Denis and Marius-Gnanou (2011) lament, world cities/ global cities are grabbing their attention while the burgeoning common urban landscape, small and medium-sized where a growing majority of the world’s urban citizens live, remains an unknown place.

11The few Indian studies focusing on women’s mobility have been done for the larger cities such as Chennai (Srinivasan, 2008); Rajkot (Mahadevia and Advani, 2016), parts of Delhi (Anand, A. and G. Tiwari , 2006), Hyderabad (Sanchez et al, 2017) and problems faced while accessing urban transport in multiple cities (Shah Sonal et al, 2016). Even the Indian Ministry of Urban Development’s Transport and Traffic Policy of urban areas, which is one of the few large scale recent studies on urban mobility, considers 30 Indian cities, a majority of which are state capitals.

12This research throws light on the mobility of urban women in smaller Indian towns with population under 1 million, a hitherto unexplored area. In this paper, we present the results of one such city, namely, Jalandhar in the northern state of Punjab, which has a population of 0.86 million (Census, 2011).

3. Methodology of the study

Quantitative data from census

13Reliable, large scale data on commuting obtained through a countrywide survey is now available from the Indian Census of 2011 which was made publicly available at the end of 2015. For the first time since it began in 1853, the latest round of the census revealed how urban India goes to work. Distance traveled on the journey to work (one way, assuming a linear trajectory) and modes used by men and women respectively are the two dimensions in which the census data is available. The data is available at the level of districts1 the next administrative unit after states. .

14The Census categories of trip length are 0-1 kilometers, 2-5 kms, 6-10 kms, 11-20 kms, 21-30 kms, 31-50 kms, above 50 kms and a category of “no travel” which represents those who do not undertake any travel to their workplace. For simplification, in this analysis, the categories beyond 20 kms have been grouped together as one.

15The trip length and mode of transport of working women in urban India as well as in Jalandhar district was computed from the census. (Census, 2011). Here the reference is to districts, a larger administrative unit than the city or agglomeration.

Qualitative research

  • 1 India is administratively divided into 29 states and 7 union territories. These are further subdivi (...)

16In addition, personal interviews were conducted with 49 working mothers in Jalandhar to qualitatively illuminate the data obtained from the census. 1Purposive sampling was undertaken to choose full time working mothers who had at least one dependent child i.e. living in the same house and dependent financially on parents/mother. This cohort was chosen as having a child increases the number of trips a woman makes (Allen, 2018) have more spatio-temporal constraints (Gordon et al, 1989) and more complex “activity spaces” than men (Scheiner and Holz-Rau, 2017). Full time working women have been defined in this study as engaged in a wage-earning activity for at least 80% of the week. Among those who fulfilled this necessary criteria, the sampling deliberately ensured diversity from varied socio-economic groups and occupational classes and included those who were self-employed, salaried, worked fixed hours and those working in shifts or having variable timings.

17The author used her own network of friends/acquaintances to establish connections in Jalandhar and through them obtain more local contacts. These local contacts provided access to the respondents by enabling permissions to visit offices, factories etc.

18A semi-structured questionnaire was used to obtain the following information:

  • Daily Mobility: Number of trips made, start time and end time, purpose of each trip, mode of transport used, origin and destination, duration of each trip, time spent between trips in each location (e.g. in workplace, shop etc.), distance traveled ;

  • Family and work situation: Marital situation, number of children, nature of work, work timings, school timings, support in the family for household tasks and non-work trips ;

  • The activities that women are able to perform and those they would like to do but are unable to do and reasons thereof.

4. Jalandhar City

19Jalandhar is the third largest city in the state of Punjab. (see map 1). Punjab is one of the most prosperous, industrialized states of India.

Map 1. Punjab map and administrative division

Map 1. Punjab map and administrative division

20Jalandhar city is an important industrial center of Punjab with numerous small scale manufacturing units of iron casting, hand tools, sports and surgical equipments. Jalandhar is a dense city – its population density is about 8500 people per sq. km compared to the state average density of 551 people per sq. km. Like almost all Indian cities, Jalandhar has a core center which is the oldest part of the city where residential and commercial activities co-exist through mixed land use policies. This is the densest part and the density keeps reducing as we move outwards from the core (see Map 2).

Map 2. Jalandhar density

Map 2. Jalandhar density

21Jalandhar has a ring and radial type of road network. It has access to 4 National Highways with the Grand Trunk road, (National Highway 31) which is the Indian sub-continent’s oldest arterial highway, passing through it. The transport terminals present in Jalandhar are a Bus Stand in the center of the city, a truck depot in the north close to the city’s industrial area is to make movement of freight easier and a railway station. It is easily accessible by rail from Amritsar on one side and Delhi on the other. The zig–zag street pattern, narrow roads, absence of pedestrian pathways, movement of mixed traffic, high dependency on personal vehicles and on-street parking results in a chaotic situation in the city. There has been limited addition in the roads space by way of new roads, widening of existing roads or other improvements (Jalandhar Masterplan, 2011).

5. Mobility of working women- Urban India and Jalandhar

1. Trip Lengths

22Table 1 below shows the average trip lengths of working women in Urban India overall (Column 1); and in Jalandhar district (Columns 2).

Table 1: Trip lengths of working women in urban India and Jalandhar district.

Urban India
(in %)

(in %)

Very Short 0-1



Short 2-5



Medium 6-10



Medium-long 11-20



Long Above 20



No travel



Not stated






Source: Author using data from Census 2011. Table B 28 Other workers journey to work

Urban India

23According to the census, in urban India overall, a huge 70% of the working population in urban contexts does not travel more than 5 kilometers. When split by gender, (not shown here) nearly one-fifth of male workers and more than one-third of women workers do not travel to work, attesting to the fact that working from home remains a largely female dominated sphere. Indeed, working from home could be due to restricted access to diverse employment opportunities for women (Chattopadhyay and Chattopadhyay, 2017).


24Column 2 in Table 1 shows the averages trip length of working women in urban Jalandhar on their journey to work. In Jalandhar, the “No Travel” component is higher than in the rest of urban India- 40% compared to 35%. According to the Jalandhar Masterplan document, every 6th house in the city is being used both for residential and commercial/office purposes, which could explain the higher than average percentage of “no travel” (Jalandhar Masterplan document, 2013, pp 61). These women mostly make items at home for the sports and surgical goods industry. A lack of public transport (see below) is a likely reason for a significant number of women to work from home. Similarly, the percentage of women traveling over 20 kilometers is also lesser than the national average of 5 %. Among the working women who work from their home, like in the rest of the country, a majority of them travel between 2-5 kilometers.

2. Modes of Transport

25Table 2 shows the modes of transport used by women going to work in the urban part of Jalandhar district, as per the census.

Table 2: Comparison of transport modes used by working women in urban India and Jalandhar district

Urban India
(in %)

(in %)







Motorized two wheelers



On Foot






Informal paratransit



Not stated






Source: Author using data from Census 2011. Table B 28 Other workers journey to work

Walking and cycling

Urban India

26Though half of India’s urban working population uses non-motorized transport to work, walking is the dominant mode among women. As income increases, both men and women tend to shift away from modes such as walking and cycling towards private motorized vehicles- two wheelers or cars (Mahadevia, 2015). However, more men shift to private motorized vehicles than women. For women, walking continued to be the dominant choice. For Indian women, for whom there is an added dimension of sexual harassment in public spaces (Jagori and UN Women, 2011), walking also puts them in vulnerable positions. In most Indian roads, pedestrians have to rely on lights coming from shops in the vicinity, without which the sidewalks remain dark and lonely, increasing the threat perception of being attacked.


27Unlike in the west where people walk out of choice because they don’t want to possess a private car for ecological reasons, in India, walkers are almost always “captive walkers” i.e. those who have no option but to walk. In the western part of Jalandhar are some industrial complexes called the Leather Complex and Sports and Surgical goods complex in which over 250 small scale units of casting and sports goods operate. (Jalandhar Masterplan, 2011). Seven of the respondents in Jalandhar worked in such factories. They lived in the nearby bastis or slums/colonies around the factory and were all migrants from the less prosperous eastern states of India.

28The only modes of transportation in this part of the city, as indeed in the rest of Jalandhar, are informal para transit like shared tempos, shared auto rickshaws and cycle rickshaws. In the shared transit, each person pays a fare of Rs. 10, the cost of a ride in a public bus. But these women were unable to afford even that as their jobs as casual labour earned them a monthly income equivalent to 60 USD per month. (According to World Bank estimates, average per capita income in India is approximately 140 USD per month).

29Hence they had no option but to walk 3-4 kilometers one way. Being able to use no other mode of transport restricted their life to the journey to work and back, depriving them of social networks, leisure and even other job opportunities which lay further than walking distance.

Public Transport

Urban India

30Women’s use of buses, however, is significantly higher than men, consistent with all studies on modal choice worldwide. On the journey to work, 17 % of urban India’s women use the bus as compared to 10 % of men. In many contexts, including India, mass transit is more unreliable, more inconvenient and more inflexible than private vehicles and hence its quality affects women more than men.


31Public transport in Jalandhar has not met with any success although in fits and starts the government has made some attempts to run a city bus service. In December 2006, the government of Punjab operated 15 buses but on only two routes. This was run with the help of various private operators. (ICRA, 2013). In mid-2014, the city bus services were abruptly stopped by the private operator managing the service in protest that the government had not taken steps to stop the plying of illegal autos, which were competing with the bus service for passengers. The private operator declared that they were incurring huge losses and was hence withdrawing his services (Singh, 2014). At the time of writing this paper, no public bus system exists in Jalandhar.

32Despite this, the census shows some data for usage of buses because people use the inter-city buses and get off en route to reach their workplaces. In addition, there are some privately operated mini-buses operational on certain specific routes. These services usually start from the city bus stand and provide connectivity to the suburban areas.

33The lack of proper buses connecting Jalandhar city to the per-urban areas affects women who work outside the city. Rani, 34, a teacher in a rural government school outside the agglomeration makes three trips changing modes, as shown in Figure 1. Her first trip is from her home to a village by her two wheeler. Parking her vehicle there, she waits for an inter-city bus on the highway. She gets on to the bus and alights at another village. From this village she walks to her school. Walking is not easy for her as she had a serious accident on her commute, three years ago.

Figure 1. Rhani’s trajectory. Source: Author, using Google Maps

Figure 1. Rhani’s trajectory. Source: Author, using Google Maps

34Talking about how she feels negotiating this remote area every weekday, Rani said:

“Roads between Dhina (village 1) and Jandiala (village 2) are bad and bumpy. It’s also crowded- there is all kinds of traffic on this road. I don’t feel safe on this route, as a woman. It is lonely and surrounded by fields; so lonely that even if someone kills you and throws you no one will get to know.”

Private transport (Cars +Two wheelers)

Urban India

35It has been found that that interest in owning a car among urban Indians was for recreational and shopping trips rather than for work commutes (Verma, 2015). Only in higher income households do people use the car to get to work. The 5 % of women who drive to work would belong to higher income, educated, urban households where the woman is also independently employed and has her own car. However, it does not necessarily signify independent mobility in the urban Indian context as they could be dependent on someone else to drive them to their destinations.

36Although not yet captured by the census, another extremely popular form of mobility in the big cities are the ride hailing services exemplified by Uber and an Indian ride sharing company Ola. According to a report by the International Finance Corporation that analyses data from Uber, (IFC, 2018) Indian women use the Uber app more frequently compared with their peers in Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, South Africa and UK.

37India is the largest two wheeler market in the world. Seventy percent of all personal vehicles in India are two wheelers (Pai et al, 2014). According to Census figures, more men use motorized two wheelers to reach their workplaces (26 %) compared to women (13 %). Within two wheelers, while men prefer motorbikes most women opt for scooters, which are typically gearless. In the past five years alone, the share of scooters in the overall two wheeler market in the country has risen from 20 % to 33 % (Thakkar, 2017) indicating more women taking to this vehicle as a mode of personal transport. Several of the largest two-wheeler manufacturers in India have marketed two wheelers, most often scooters, specifically oriented towards women. Women take to scooters easily as they are cheaper than using public transport, enable door to door travel, easy negotiation through traffic and easy parking. A two wheeler is ideal for “trip chaining” (combining many trips together) as a woman can run a short errand and quickly move to the next destination without worrying about connectivity from one point to another, which is inconvenient in public transport (itrans, 2009).


38The lack of public transport compels working women to use private transport such as the two wheelers. Jalandhar has the highest number of women two wheeler drivers at 27 %. The “Activa4” brand of gearless scooters or “scootys” as they are called, is produced by the Hero Honda company, the leading two wheeler manufacturer in India whose production centre is in the state of Punjab. Registration of scooties under women’s names has increased threefold between 2009 to 2014 according to data obtained by the author from the regional transport office (RTO) in Jalandhar.

39Rasna is a radio jockey and television newsreader who holds three different jobs, and twice a week it becomes four jobs as she does a special program in another TV station. She crisscrosses the city from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day from a radio station where her program begins at 5a.m. in the morning to at a local radio station. During lunchtime at 1.30 p.m. she goes home and leaves at 4.30 p.m. for another radio station. From there at 8.p.m. she leaves for a TV news channel where she stays till 10.30 p.m. and then leaves for home. On two days of the week, she anchors a program in a state run TV channel, so on those days, she flits in and out between four offices. Rasna points out that her two wheeler is the reason for her to be able to be hyper mobile, as meet her professional demands. She credits her Activa for being able to reach all her workplace destinations on time because the nature of her jobs requires her to arrive promptly to begin the program at the exact time.

Informal para transit – Autos/rickshaws

Urban India

40Informal paratransit or Informal public transport (IPTs) refer to modes of transport which fill the gap between private transport and formal public transport in a city. IPTs could be flexible services operation on demand, where a passenger fixes the destination (motorized three wheelers, non-motorized cycle rickshaws, taxis). Or they can be services like share-a-cab, shared autos and mini-buses or tempos. The Census does not give a breakup of the different kinds of vehicles clubbed together as IPT, so we cannot estimate which mode is used more. About twice the number of women compared to men use Informal Para Transit because of the flexibility and easy availability it offers.


41There are two types of auto-rickshaw services in Jalandhar. One is the “Shared auto service”, which plies between a fixed origin and destination. But the shared auto does not go into the inner streets and passengers who wish to board have to reach the origin point on their own. The second is the single hire auto rickshaw, which are rarely available. This is a door to door service but the passenger has to pay much more than the shared service.

42Bhavy, 38, works as an English language instructor in a private institute in the city. Her family has a car but Bhavya cannot drive so her husband takes the car, as he is an accountant whose office is much further away. The shared auto is Bhavya’s only way to access places. Although this mode of paratransit is nominally priced at Rs.10 per passenger and fairly easily available, at least from the main roads, using it every day can be exhausting. The bumpy roads, which are almost ubiquitous in Indian cities can cause backaches, which Bhavya says she has acquired. It can also be often overcrowded making and uncomfortable for women passengers Jalandhar has almost no single passenger autos. Hence for those who do not have private transport, the shared auto is the only option. The proximity to male passengers can also make some women uncomfortable (see Figure 2)

Figure 2. Inside a shared auto. Source: Google images

Figure 2. Inside a shared auto. Source: Google images

43As a daily user of shared autos Bhavana narrates her experience as follows:

“I avoid wearing certain clothes. Like jeans with short tops… just keeping in mind that I have to commute by shared auto. If there’s a meeting in the office and you are nicely dressed, the ten-minute ride in the auto becomes uncomfortable. People touch you as if by mistake and say « oh, I’m sorry! ». I am reluctant to take an auto in the evenings… ». Those sitting in front along with the driver they keep rubbing their back with you as there is no partition in between.”

6. Conclusion

44While some barriers to mobility are social, financial and even personal, the lack of infrastructure that can make mobility easier such as a public transport system is a crucial impediment. In smaller Indian cities with less than 1 million population, there is only a skeletal bus service or inter city buses which connect the city to the peripheral areas but lack an intra- city service.

45The inability of the local authorities to have a bus system in the city of Jalandhar makes women, who have poor access to personal vehicles, rely on Informal para transit (IPT) like shared autos. IPT options emerge in Indian cities, to plug the supply gap created by inadequate public transport. Though these options serve large sections of the population, they are still unaffordable on a daily basis for the very poor like the women factory workers described in this paper. Another issue is that autos and rickshaws are not recognized as a formal mode of transport. Despite their undeniable utility, auto and rickshaw drivers face criticism and punitive policies with respect to granting of permits and setting of fares. (Harding et al., 2016). IPT modes need to be integrated into urban transport policy and treated as a valid, recognized mode of urban transport rather than an annoyance on city roads.

46Mobility freedom for the poor will be unrealized without state action.

47The state however, is focused on building flyovers and ring roads improving mobility for automobile owners. . This “traffic-based” view of urban transport which focused on the concerns of motorists instead of all transport users, prevailed in the 1960s and ‘70s in developed countries. This outlook was subsequently exported to developing countries, where it has been enthusiastically adopted despite being incongruous with prevailing socio-economic realities. For example, although for more than half of India- both men and women- walking is the predominant mode of transport in to get to work, little attention is paid to improving the walking infrastructure. Successive governments have been singularly focused on car oriented planning policies involving building of more highways and increasing the number of parking lots, pushed by lobbying car owners who are the higher income groups of the country. Meanwhile, walkability is close to nil, as local streets are either taken over by street vendors or are too narrow and pot- holed but remain neglected. Working women, especially of lower income groups, are particularly disadvantaged as walking is more energy consuming and inconvenient, increases time poverty and further constrains their ability to perform the various roles required of them.

48In India, like in many emerging countries, policy and planning is a long way off from understanding urban women’s lives and how they use the city. More research which focus on women’s mobility, can begin to open up pathways for thinking along gender lines.

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1 India is administratively divided into 29 states and 7 union territories. These are further subdivided into 604 districts. The district headquarters is the typically the largest, most populated and urbanized city in the district.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Map 1. Punjab map and administrative division
Fichier image/png, 863k
Titre Map 2. Jalandhar density
Fichier image/png, 871k
Titre Figure 1. Rhani’s trajectory. Source: Author, using Google Maps
Fichier image/png, 464k
Titre Figure 2. Inside a shared auto. Source: Google images
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Vandana Vasudevan, « Mobility of urban working women in India: study of Jalandhar in north India », Territoire en mouvement Revue de géographie et aménagement [En ligne], 47 | 2020, mis en ligne le 25 novembre 2020, consulté le 17 août 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Vandana Vasudevan

PhD, Université de Grenoble Alpes

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