Chronicles Where the mind is without fear

An all-pervading sense of panic seems to have gripped our cities and their populations. No one, it appears, feels safe. The frantic whipping up of frenzy by the media - hysterical homilies on TV or headlines emblazoned on front pages with news of gruesome murders, rapes and sensational crimes - heightens public insecurities to a pitch, creating an insidious culture of fear. We are at risk from strangers, domestic help, terrorists, drunkards, 'monkey men', and leopards, who stalk the cities or the imagination of their populations, creating a mentality akin to being perpetually holed-up in a bunker.

Urban crime and its severity is an undisputable fact, but the truth is that, as urbanization increases dramatically, the levels of crime have not increased in proportion. It is interesting that, in a listing of the twenty most dangerous metropolii of the world (based on crime-population ratios) not a single Indian city finds mention. Crime in urban India is of a much lower intensity than is the general perception, and despite the enormous constraints the police operate under, policing has largely been responsible for this.

So what is it that drives people into believing and living in an atmosphere that is never free from fear? The news of dozens of people being gunned down or blown up in a remote hamlet in Chhattisgarh or Bihar does not strike terror in the heart of an urbanite; but the murder of an elderly couple or a lone woman in her flat in a 'gated' enclave creates a round rush of panic that only shifts when another 'sensational' murder takes place. Apart from an inability to understand the compulsions that make news 'news', it is perhaps the very character of the Indian city that drives people into seeing their imagined demons completely surround them.

Delhi, by all standards, is a relative safe city, with a crime rate of 261 cognizable offences per 100,000, in 2004, compared to the 441 per 100,000 'violent crime' rate for the 'very safe' post-Mayor Giuliani New York. Yet nothing can convince the general public that this is, in fact, the case. By 11'O Clock in the evening - early hours in any civilized city - India's capital is cloaked in a shroud. Shops down shutters at 7.30 and most pubs and restaurants are off limits an hour before midnight. Everyone must run home to the 'safety' of their cocooned colonies.

This, precisely, is what leads to the beginnings of fear. Telling people to clear the streets, to lock themselves in their homes, is telling them that all is not well. The desire to control and dictate a lifestyle to the people, to adopt an authoritarian stance in order to 'impose safety' not only sends out the wrong message - it creates the very conditions for crime to thrive. With little public circulation, the city is virtually abandoned to criminals in the night. It is interesting that Bombay - a city with a nightlife that thrives in comparison to Delhi - has a crime rate less than a third of the national capital.

Clampdowns never work in sending out a message of peace and security. In Punjab, after nearly a decade and a half of militancy, a conscious strategy was worked out to let the people know that peace had returned. Popular concerts with prominent artistes were held in different parts of the State, and deliberately started much later than was usual, to continue well into the early hours of the morning. Within days these concerts were flooded with people who poured out of their homes, shrugging off the years of sorrow and the very real dangers they had been subjected to. Soon, Punjab was once again the land of the Bhangra and the dhol. It was these very concerts and the joy and revelry that attended them that symbolized the end of the age of terror.

At another plane, London was a city that had not changed its drinking laws since the First World War, with the curfew hour for pubs fixed at 11:00 pm. Recently, however, despite strong criticism, the Government decided to introduce a new '24-hour' drinking policy. Many sundry and dire pronouncements were made, as critics argued that there would be a sharp increase in crime, in the consumption of alcohol, and in teenage drinking. Yet, a month into the new law, it has been found that, far from an increase in crime there was a dramatic drop, and there was no significant rise in liquor sales! In fact, the total number of drunks that staggered out at the same time, tanked to the gills as they tried to imbibe as much as they could before closing time under the old dispensation, now dispersed in a discrete stream, and were not as drunk or looking for a fight. The new policy, which allowed people greater freedom to drink when they pleased, was actually more sensible, even more humane and civilized.

A wise and informed administration is able to distinguish between times of stress and strife and times of peace, and to recognize that different situations require different regulations. The Delhi of the Sixties and early-Seventies underwent a drastic change after the imposition of the Emergency, but Governments thereafter have done little to return the life of the city to normal.

Today, India's cities are thriving as they embrace the ethos of 'liberalization', yet city life is far from modern or cosmopolitan. If anything, the shadows of fear have lengthened, and numerous 'gated' colonies have been built over the last decade, manifesting the emerging metropolitan culture and psyche. The increasing popularity of gated colonies and communities policed by private security guards reveals and augments the inherent insecurities held in the citizens' hearts. Unfortunately these colonies have not proved to be much safer than 'open' colonies, though the clamour for higher walls and more security guards continues.

We now see municipal government functions - including aspects of security - being given over to private players and citizens or 'civil society'. This fragmentation, this changing dynamic, adds to the insecurities of strangers who have to share a city. Are we ready, as citizens, to function in a coherent and mutually beneficial manner? Will the empowering of residents' welfare associations (RWAs) help a city as a whole? Who and what is 'civil society' - the 126 members of Delhi's social elite who sat at Tamarind Court, in an illegal bar, witnessed the murder of Jessica Lall, and without exception, failed to give honest testimony, with many perjuring themselves under oath? It is the culture of the city, a culture within which the application of the rule of law is arbitrary and skewed, that allows people with such a tenuous social conscience to get away. Can they be expected to take charge of and contribute to the welfare of the city? Handing over governance to the people at the present stage of civic and social underdevelopment is premature and constitutes an abdication of necessary responsibilities by government.

It is when our citizens learn to walk over an over-bridge rather than dash across the road; when they learn to drive on the correct side of the road and not whimsically change lanes; when no drunken youngsters can crash their cars through people on the roads simply because it is so easy to drink and drive, and expect to safely escape the consequences of law; when temples, mosques and gurudwaras shut off their loudspeakers at the designated hour and don't disturb the peace by assuming divine right; and when the law holds people responsible for violating these seemingly small but nevertheless very important rules, that the city will become safer. It is not the grand, sweeping laws or silly intrusive moral codes that secure the city. It is when the basic vocabulary of city life is learnt by the state and the citizen alike that we will be able to create cities that are free from fear.

Chitvan Gill

Published in The Pioneer, March 23, 2006



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