Cities under siege


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OUR responses to crime reports are predictable. It now takes a truly egregious crime to provoke any kind of response. There are many reports that we allow to pass us by – perhaps we are overwhelmed by numbers – and we have long ago given up trying to understand why. Always, it seems, the perpetrator is the Other, someone so unlike us that he or she might as well be from another planet. Superficialities present themselves, most often in the haze of cocktail chatter: no respect for the law, rising lawlessness, ineffective enforcement, a judicial system that has collapsed. These are not answers. These are not even reasons. They are what they are: excuses for our fundamental loss of direction, our collective abandonment of a civic, moral, social and ethical compass.

Urban safety is not only about rape. This is not an explanation (let alone an excuse) for the increasing numbers of rapes, gang-rapes and instances of horrifying child abuse – I have no answer to that terrible question why in such cases; but these are not the only issues of urban safety, and there is no one-to-one correspondence between rape and urban safety. Rape occurs everywhere; it is not and never has been exclusively an urban problem. Extrapolating the problem of a rise in rape cases to the issue of urban safety is an oversimplification, and the horrifying nature of rape cases tends to limit our understanding of the complexity and dimensions of the urban safety problem. Attacks on women are indicators of an urban social order under fatal distress, of which, perhaps, attacks on the female child are an extreme expression.


Urban safety is also about every form of assault on the individual – from a self-appointed moral brigade beating up youngsters at a nightclub to acid attacks, knifings and shootings, or hit-and-run motor accidents. The question, too, is not whether our cities are safe (they are not), or whether they should be (they should), but why and how we have allowed things to come to this pass, and what we mean when we speak of ‘safety’. This is a term that now demands normalization because recent reports and public responses, at least since December 2012, have skewed the debate on all sides as if to suggest that if we are somehow able to stop rapes in urban areas, our cities will automatically become ‘safe’.

‘Safety’ is a term has been shrunk to mean safe-for-women. In this context, and in response to the increasing reports of repeated attacks, each grislier than the one before, there are demands for all manner of extreme punishment from castration to mutilation and the death penalty, for fast-track courts and for a massive rejigging of criminal law so that, at least in the extreme cases of rape and gang-rape, the burden of proof is, if not expressly then by necessary implication, shifted to the accused to establish innocence, rather like one of our infamous ‘terror laws’. The distortions occur because there are far too many voices that blame victims – how a woman chooses to dress, where she is seen and with whom and doing what, as if to suggest that if only women comported themselves in that undefined, indefinable and nebulous manner called ‘decent’, then there might be fewer rapes. There is, too, that demand for greater policing, for increasing the number of police per capita, an idea that suggests that if we each had our personnel, dedicated policeman, we would all be completely safe.

This is not how law is supposed to work, nor how societies should be expected to live or survive. Criminal law, a respect for law, and being law abiding do not demand or even require more numbers in uniform. Criminal laws define the outer limits of acceptable social behaviour and it is reasonable to expect that the average citizen will conduct himself well within those limits, and never need the assistance of law enforcement. This is not to deny that law enforcement needs to be quicker, more efficient and less inappropriate in its responses when it is called upon to act, but to suggest instead that to each-her-personal-cop is not a solution. Suggestions of this kind assume that left to themselves human beings are only masses of uncontrollable urges. The assumption is as absurd as the solution it generates.


Criminal statutes are mirrors to society. They tell us what a society will or will not accept: theft, bribery, corruption, criminal conspiracy, murder, rape are crimes because these are all forms of conduct that society forbids, not because they have been imposed, top-down, by a handful among us. Certainly, some of these mirrors are cracked from side to side (criminalizing homosexuality or suicide, for example) but that is a matter of a law remaining frozen and out of step with a changed societal norm. There are always some elements that push these boundaries, and that is the point at which what we call law enforcement steps in, and it is, again, a societal demand. When we perceive greater numbers running up against these boundaries, is it time to alter those boundaries, to shrink them further, or to look inward and ask if the way in which we have allowed our societies to develop has encouraged, or perhaps even forced, the breaking of those social and statutory limits?


Our cities have changed. They are not the cities they were half a century ago. What has changed? There is today, I believe, an increasing isolation of the individual from the community, a systematic process of abstraction and a distancing of the individual from the collective self. The Bombay of the 1950s is nothing like the Mumbai of 2013, and the same could be said of every other major metropolis. There is a visible and perceptible lack of shared concern about others, about common spaces and shared areas, a retreat into the individualistic. There was a time when a cause might unite large numbers, and there were many causes that united many such groups. We seldom see that any longer and when we do, it is only in the face of extreme provocation – a gang rape in Delhi, a terrorist attack in Mumbai – and it is invariably short-lived.

Trade unions have almost completely disappeared; once, they had formidable strength and bargaining power, and sustained long and difficult campaigns to force dramatic changes. These were not necessarily for the better; the point is that in our cities every form and sense of collective action has become extinct. The dynamics of urban and social power are now lopsided, and power has been taken from the ordinary individual and put in the hands of a narrow, select band of the extremely wealthy and the politically influential. This is our ruling class, and it is a self-appointed, self-serving and self-generating club that sees itself, because of its money and power, as better than the rest of the urban community and, therefore, outside it and deserving of ‘more’.


It is this group that shows no concern for the community when it buys and develops property, claims ownership of the commons, and demands private access to what should be shared resources like water and power. The law is bent and twisted to favour this elite, and local groups and neighbourhoods are driven to long, expensive and usually losing battles to preserve their communities. NGOs are pampered by the elite, so long as they remain quaint and irrelevant, hosting lectures and seminars (the same twelve people saying the same twelve things to the same twelve people in one of the same four venues); but when an NGO does take up an issue for an entire community, or for the city, it threatens the foundations of this ruling class elitism. The most dramatic example of this is probably the legal battle for the mill lands in Mumbai. More and more, this elitism is projected as a desirable, as a valid and worthwhile aspiration for all, even though this elitism is explicitly exclusionary. You cannot be one of the elite unless you cease to be one of the city. The ridiculous private residences of the Ambanis and the Singhanias are precisely this: an abstraction of select individuals into some Never-Never land.

This fracturing of urban communities is a result of our chosen forms of urban architecture and town planning, and is itself a consequence of the distortions in economic policy and development over the last several decades. Warped definitions of progress – fancier cars for the few, little or no attention to mass transit and public transport, public infrastructure and open spaces – lead to urban built forms that are incongruous and inappropriate. Rahul Mehrotra calls this the ‘architecture of impatient capitalism.’ Mehrotra is too gentle. It is the architecture of impatient social imperialism, the architecture of individualism, the architecture of exclusion. The built form reflects a change in perception and attitude, where the individual and his needs are not only paramount, but where the needs of the community are reduced to irrelevance.


In the low-height constructions of Delhi’s ‘colonies’, one property owner will raise the level of the service road abutting his land so that it drains into that of the neighbours on either side. Each neighbour is then forced to do likewise. The local authority will not force the errant property owner to restore the road to its original condition but, instead, compel everyone to look out for themselves. In Mumbai, the evidence could not be starker. One developer advises you to ‘rise above it all’, the ‘it all’ meaning those who do not, or cannot afford to, live in the advertised residence; and meaning, too, the sense of the city beneath. The same developer proposes a tower residence of over a hundred floors and then offers ‘signature monogrammed’ apartments, saying that ‘neither money nor influence’ will make it available again. What but money and influence can ever make it available? Lacking either, you are a nonentity. This is not restricted to issues of space. It extends itself, shockingly, to human beings. Bombay Realty’s Island City Centre advertisements tell us of one of its great benefits, in addition to in-enclave work, hotels, shopping, and schools – ‘staff is largely not visible’.


The location of these islands of exclusion is perhaps even more important than their existence. In Mumbai, where space is limited, high-rise, high-end luxury apartments are in close juxtaposition with slum and roadside shanties. Close juxtaposition is a euphemism: read, a few feet, or a few hundred feet. The contrasts speak for themselves: private infinity pools for a few, and no water or less than a bucket of water for the many who live outside the 12 foot perimeter walls. In city after city, this form of planning, building and architecture has led to a sort of reverse ghettoization; these are no longer merely gated communities. They are the ghettos of the rich, abstracted and subtracted from every-day urban existence. The language of the occupants of such rich ghettos has changed too. In the heart of Mumbai, at Worli near the old passport office, a young couple living in one such multi-acre development say that they have everything they need within their complex: ‘We never need to go to Bombay.’ Bombay stops at their gate.

Where we allow the rich to put themselves is one side of things. Where we force the poor is the other. This is a problem true of all major cities in India: our solution to the housing crisis is not to mandate more mixed-income housing but, in a further exercise of abstraction, to remove the poor altogether because ‘slums are an eyesore’ and do not fit the paradigms of ‘world-class’ cities. Again, distorted definitions yielding distorted policies. Delhi has its extreme examples, and when a judge of the Supreme Court likens slum dweller to ‘pickpockets’, implying that cities are degraded (and, yes, unsafe, because there is, don’t we all know, that well established connection between informal settlements and crime) because the poor have nowhere to live. Our answer, in the last four decades, has not been to institute systems of control and balance and provide affordable (not free) housing, but to boot out the poor, those who cannot afford luxury residences, to distant locations with no infrastructure or means of commuting to their places of livelihood. The Yamuna Pushta evictions of 2000 in Delhi demonstrated nothing but this exclusionary approach to housing.


Within the enclaves of exclusion and escape lie further inequities: requiring armies of staff without concern for where and how they live and from where they commute to provide their ‘invisible’ but essential services. Where do these come from? Where do they live and in what conditions? These are not the concerns of planning authorities, town planners, developers or luxury residence owners. Responsibility ceases with salary payouts; for the rest, they are asked to ‘manage’. That they come from distant villages in search of a livelihood, that they are forced to live in degrading and crowded conditions, that their lives are essentially lonely, pulled from families and ties are all matters of irrelevance, and are conditions imposed on them by the choices allowed to the elite. Forced mixed-income housing is a social leveller – it forces the acceptance of disparities in habit, income and preference, and individual safety is its inevitable by-product. The ugly truth behind what we have come to regard as ‘safe’ urban living is that it depends on those we care for least to care most for those who choose to remove themselves from ‘it all’.

An essential part of urban safety is a shared regard for the condition of others, and a quietly insidious manifestation of the process of individual abstraction from community living is our refusal to ‘get involved’ when others are assaulted before us. This is a result of the breakdown of the urban organism, the community and sense of oneness that binds and protects citizens from each other. This is a sensibility that has been all but eradicated. When planners and analysts speak of increasing urbanization, the need for better cities, and for something they call ‘planned’ cities, the issue of social cohesion is never addressed. Developers do not want this – it is a potentially powerful force that can compel change – and go to great lengths to emphasize solitude in luxury and, again, the great merit in escaping collective and shared responsibility.


The disconnect is not limited to physical living conditions. Exclusion in housing and accommodation choices leads to a further distancing at a social and moral level, and to greater insulation. Modern communication brings the world into the home, and we do not need to go outside to engage with the world. Those in enclaves live, dress, eat and work to a different and wholly alien standard from those outside their enclaves but yet within the city. When we demand ‘safety’ in our cities, we are in truth demanding that in the face of such inequities and contrasts, in the face of what can only be described as social crimes, those who do not have must accept these very injustices and not respond to them.

Where communities and societies are permitted to be divided and fractured between those who have and those who do not, there one will always find a decline in individual safety. Our cities are today at war within themselves. It is only a matter of time before they burn.


* Prior to his appointment as a Judge of the Bombay High Court recently, the author was a practicing lawyer.