IN ONE of New Delhi's smarter residential districts, a young woman strolls towards a crowded bus stop. A middle- aged man on a blue scooter slows down beside her and begins a wobbly kerb crawl. 'Would you come to a hotel with me?' he asks, raising the visor of his crash helmet and stopping. The woman casually approaches him. 'How much money do you charge?' he asks. Without changing the expression on her face, the woman raises her hand and whacks the man across the head.

The force of the blow splinters his visor and sends him sprawling beneath his scooter. The woman scratches her head and three men rush out from behind a tree and untangle the bewildered man from his scooter. They punch him and he begins to cry as they frogmarch him to a waiting truck.

He is the latest victim of a crackdown by the Indian police on 'Eve- teasers' - men who harass women with catcalls, leers, obscene gestures and propositions. She is Lieutenant Neelam Yadad, who works for the Crimes Against Women Unit attached to Nanakpura police station, one of nine units in Delhi.

Since 1987 the city's units have been sending out Eve-teasing squads of up to six plain-clothes policemen and women trained in judo for an hour or two every afternoon in an attempt to root out the city's Eve-teasers. Between them they arrest an average of 450 men per week. Most are middle- aged, married, and from the higher castes. 'Some of them try to run away,' says Lt Yadad. 'Or they try to run me over when they realise what is happening. The most violent get put in prison.'

Back at the bus stop, people are agog with excitement at this unexpected drama. Minutes later they are craning their necks for a glimpse of an action replay on the other side of the road as a turbanned man in a smart grey car draws up beside two women heading for a coconut stall. They lean into his car, seize the ignition key and scratch their heads. The gesture is a signal for the same three men to dash across the road, arrest the man and drag him, bleating miserably and turban askew, into the truck.

One hour later seven men sit sheepishly in the back of the truck, ready to be driven off to the nearest police station. They will be fined between pounds 10 and pounds 50 for sexual harassment. The afternoon's most successful decoy, Lt Yadad, smiles with satisfaction. 'I never feel afraid when I approach a man who is calling me. Why should I? I feel very happy because I know what he's got coming to him,' she says.

As we talk, a young man is pushed bawling towards the truck. The plainclothes policemen begin to beat him, but Lt Yadad asks them to stop. 'He told us he couldn't help himself because his child had just died in the hospital opposite,' explains her colleague, Lieutenant Durgesh Dutt. 'I checked it out and found he was lying. He then tried to bribe me with 500 rupees.' The man is thrown into the truck, still blubbing.

'Oh, I feel so bad,' says one of the arrested men, a government employee. He is trembling with shock. 'This is the first time I have ever done this,' he says. Lt Yadad looks unconvinced. 'I don't know why I did it. I feel so embarrassed and will never do it again. Now I am feeling guilty.' Will he tell his wife? 'Yes, I will. It is my fault and I don't want her finding out through anyone else except me. It will kill her.' He buries his head in his hands.

Such harassment - prohibited under Indian law - is believed by the authorities to be a contributory factor in the alarming rise of violence against women. Eve-teasing has reached such epidemic proportions that women in cities such as New Delhi and Hyderabad rarely go out after 7pm unless they can afford rickshaws or taxis.

Lt Dutt has his own theory about men who pester women: 'Their wives aren't being sexually responsive, and they need to find it elsewhere.' His boss, Deputy Commissioner Yamin Hazarika, points the finger at the 'purdah culture of the north'.

'I am from Assam (in north- east India) and have always related to men as equals. Men in the east have a different attitude to women. Here in the north, where Eve-teasing is definitely worse, men have a peculiar attitude to women. They think we are second-class citizens and can do what they like with us. A woman walking on her own, or with a girlfriend, is instantly thought of as a prostitute. Wherever there is the concept of dowry you will find women count for very little.'

Anjum Chaturvedi, an illustrator in her twenties, is from Gujarat, in western India, and has lived in Delhi for seven years. 'Here they even pull their pants down in front of you. One guy passed me on his scooter the other day, and the next minute he was in a corner with his trousers round his ankles. That would never happen in Gujarat. There, boys and girls mix freely, you can go out in the evening, it's normal. The men in the north get frustrated, not because they are more highly sexed, but because their culture doesn't allow them to mix with women and see them as people in their own right.'

The rise in Eve-teasing has also been blamed on the growing promiscuity portrayed in Hindi films and the media. Scenes of sexual violence, which would not have escaped the film censor five years ago, are now commonplace. To subvert a ban on nudity, directors have discovered countless ways in which actresses can get wet to turn their saris into clingfilm, while last year an advert for Kama Sutra condoms, in which a model's nipples were more than hinted at, took the billboards by storm.

'Hindi films are shown in states where sexual harassment isn't rife. They can't be the cause,' says Madhu Keshwar, editor of the feminist magazine Manushi. 'But they certainly don't help female equality.'

The magazine has been leading a campaign against sexual harassment of female students and lecturers at Delhi University. 'Eve-teasing is a stupid word,' says Ms Keshwar. 'It is probably a 19th-century English word and belittles the seriousness of the crime. Sexual harassment is about domination and when a man sexually harasses a woman he is trying to remind her who the master is. Eve-teasing squads aren't going to change that attitude.'

Stretched as she is to provide the staff for the squads, Ms Hazarika believes the arrests make men think twice about approaching women again. 'It may be a drop in the ocean, but it

is at least showing that society and

the law don't approve of this type of behaviour.'

At the bus stop, several women have missed their bus. 'I can't believe that girl did that,' said one with obvious relish. 'I mean, whack a man like that - unbelievable. But when those miserable creeps reach the police station, they'll probably get away with it. The police there will sympathise with them and take a bribe. After a few days they'll be out again, bothering women like us.'

(Photograph omitted)