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City of Sins

The manner in which we create cities, and allow them to evolve, has great impact on how its inhabitants use it, writes Arpita Das

Arpita Das  22nd Dec 2012

Illustration: Rashmi Gupta| Dev Kabir Malik Design

n the Jodie Foster film Panic Room, there exists a startling, cogent representation of crime and spatiality in the city. Foster's character refuses to come out of an impenetrable and highly secure steel chamber called the panic room, even as armed and hostile intruders pile into her large, posh house. The intruders retaliate by turning the house into an exitless trap, putting additional nuts and bolts into all its doors and windows, and then try to literally smoke Foster and her daughter out of their hideout by infusing poisonous gas into the panic room through an air vent. The panic room is emblematic of the urban ghetto, which despite being created to satisfy the need for security, often turns into a trap for the inhabiting community during communal riots. Release, if any, is possible only via death.

Ever since Emile Durkheim described crime as an 'inescapable phenomenon which can never be eradicated', examining the link between city spaces and crime seemed only a step away. However, this position is only recently being explored in earnest by urbanists, anthropologists and the relevant authorities. Ghettos are seen as the most obvious starting point for such a discussion, familiar as we all are with its vital characteristics — an enclosed, marked space where members of a particular community live in constant fear of mob-based violence.

Historically, walls were built to keep undesirables out of cities or settlements. Cities in turn were created for the sake of the safety of their inhabitants. The modern experience, however, has been characterised by a fear of those living inside these areas of seclusion; in the modern city, any sense of safety has been eroded by an ever-palpable, albeit subterranean, anxiety. Urban authorities and experts began engaging in what may be termed as urban 'fear management', by creating spaces such as malls and gated communities. However, these spaces are driven entirely by private forces, creating a different kind of ghetto altogether — but a ghetto nonetheless, and one that has equally significant consequences for the psyche of the poor and the 'excluded'.

The new urban ghetto

For years the spaces in the Indian capital known for criminal activity were the dark nooks, neglected parking lots and unused-by-night commercial spaces. However, crime in the city seems to have changed its location--today it is happening right on the street, on moving buses in the most recent chilling example, and increasingly outside the entrances of malls and the portals of our gated communities. The 'gate', points out noted Delhi family counsellor, Reena Nath, 'is a symbol of exclusion and therein a problem.' She explains that the gate helps the process of 'othering' by siting the criminal element outside oneself, making one conveniently sidestep the fact that crime in the city is most often perpetrated by people known to one, as crime statistics have shown again and again. She goes further to say that the gate helps in reducing the need to take accountability, leading to the disturbing trend among the middle class of describing 'crime' as a terrible thing happening 'elsewhere'. She also draws an interesting connection between the 'uncared for' spaces in the city and the incidence of crime. Nath emphasises the need to reclaim rundown city spaces to send out the message that 'the people and the authorities care'.

A central principle in urban ecology is that criminal behaviour can be traced to the physical structure of the environment. In other words, the design and organisation of the setting promotes crime.

Stereotyping the Gurgaon 'goon'

Whenever a crime is reported in the NCR, the media and the middle class rush to stereotype the perpetrators, causing the process of 'othering' to begin anew even as one successfully situates the possibility of criminality outside oneself. Thus the domestic help committing crimes against employers has become a sordid urban legend even though recently the most heinous cases of abuse, sexual and otherwise, of domestic help at the hands of well-to-do middle-class employers have come to light in the capital. The latest to join the perpetrator stereotype is the 'unlettered, aggressive and moneyed goon from Gurgaon'. In the summer of 2012, after a blatant case of gang rape of a woman who was abducted by several men outside a Gurgaon mall, and which left the capital shaken, an important daily carried a report which blamed the 'phenomenon' of the young Jat goon with tinted cars in Gurgaon as the prime reason for the upscale in crime in that area. This is a dangerous turn for middle-class analysis of crime-causality to take.

Gurgaon-based writer and feminist activist Kalyani Menon Sen is particularly aware of the unfairness of such stereotyping. She says that the way Delhi is expanding is through dispossession, followed by criminalisation of the dispossessed. 'The jat-gujjars are deprived not only of their land, which is the material basis of their social relations, but also of their sense of self, their culture, their dignity. They aspire to become part of the society that has swept over them, but the usual way in which they enter the upper echelons of society is as associates of those who don't want to soil their own hands with physical violence.' She adds, 'I have heard Delhi businessmen referring to their young Jat associates as "Rottweilers". Their official status is "partner", but their actual role is as attack dogs and hatchet men, and of course the aggressive construction of Jat masculinity plays right into this.'

About the Gate as an alienating barrier, however, Menon Sen cautions, 'Let's not forget that for a vulnerable community, gates and walls can be markers of safety.' For instance, Namita, who works as a nanny to an infant in posh South Delhi, swears by the gate in the lane in Kotla where she shares a set of rooms with her husband and five other tenants, 'The gate keeps us safe. If you forget your keys, you can keep roaming outside all night — no one will open the gate for you from inside after 10 at night.' But even as she says this, she seems oblivious to the chilling consequences of being 'locked out' by mistake, particularly for a young woman like herself.Image 2nd

Urban ecology and crime

Brazilian scholar Claudio C. Beato, who has written extensively on violent criminality and the city, talks about urban ecology as an important element in the distribution of certain types of criminal offences in modern cities. Beato concludes that the effect of boroughs and neighbourhoods goes beyond traditional characteristics related to poverty concentration and highlights aspects such as institutional mechanisms and the interaction processes among persons. Although having gained popularity in the 1970s in the West, urban ecology research with crime in focus has only come to India recently. A central principle in urban ecology is that criminal behaviour can be traced to the physical structure of the environment. In other words, the design and organisation of the setting promotes crime.

One form of application of urban ecology research to crime is through making available more extensive data for policing. You might have seen it being used a lot in the American reality show Cops. In India, police departments in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Goa, Delhi and Chennai are considered the frontrunners in using GIS and GPS for crime prevention and control. For instance, in a first response to the Home Ministry in the aftermath of the brutal gangrape and assault of a young woman and her friend on a moving bus a few days ago, it is using available urban ecology data that the Delhi Police has noted 11 stretches in the capital which are poorly-lit, and vulnerable to 'criminal' activity. But urban ecology data for policing is only one option.

Contest to Protest: Left, Right and the battle for the bodyAbhirup Dam and Tanushree Bhasin

Eyes on the street

In an award-winning work on the enduring link between race and crime (The Necessity of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America) noted American scholar Kahlil Gibran Muhammad highlights street-level diversity as important in lowering crime rates. He emphasises the 'natural surveillance' effected by an unconscious network of voluntary controls and standards. In doing this he is reiterating the iconic work of New York and Toronto-based community activist and writer, Jane Jacobs, who in her masterwork The Death and Life of the Great American Cities declared that streets are safe when people use them in large numbers and when they are willing to watch the streets from windows. A related theory, called the Broken Windows Theory, put forward by George Kelling and James Wilson, stated that the smallest aberration in appearance could send an entire neighbourhood into a spiral of decay. In 1971 American criminologist C. Ray Jeffrey actually gave a name to this newly developing phenomenon — he called it Crime Prevention through Environmental Design.

Closer home, in Delhi, urban designer Sudeshna Chatterjee carried out an ethnographic survey of children's play patterns and spaces in the dense and largely traditional urban space in the heart of South Delhi in 2011. Playgrounds are ideally imagined, located, or they organically develop on their own in areas considered safest from 'stranger-danger'. For this reason, often the street outside one's home, though prone to unruly traffic, becomes a spontaneous play area for children. At the end of her study, Chatterjee concluded that a playground is most likely to be located at the heart of the community, and that the most popular playground in Khirkee village was a small park which was a 'community living room' of sorts, and which was 'but a part of a larger assemblage of interconnected spaces flowing in and out of each other'.

But our streets are often not even available to us anymore. Senior planner E.F.N. Ribeiro asks, 'Why are streets inside residential colonies blocked with gates at night? Taxes are used for the maintenance of these roads--they are public property. How can a public street become the property of a particular locality or RWA?' He is however confident that the recent increase in municipal wards in Delhi to 408, and the considerable reservation for women's seats therein, will help in better execution of all city-related municipal functions, including prevention against crime against women,  through practical on-the-grounds measures.

Space-related decisions taken with a top-down approach over the past few decades in Delhi have only led to an increase in spontaneous and violent crime. Where are the mixed spaces with eyes on the streets keeping our kids safe? A viable model of such a heterogeneous urban space is Dilli Haat, one which is as much home to indigenous crafts, food stalls, rock concerts and promenading families, and feels utterly safe at any time of day or night.

Our city is now packed with gated streets, complexes and communities, and mere pockets of interconnectedness like Dilli Haat can do little to make it safe. As surveillance increases following the escalation in the sense of urban panic in the aftermath of a particularly brutal crime, the city becomes the stage for a different kind of dance of terror as it shifts between an unwalkable, densely trafficked conglomeration to a ghost town where once gates and doors close, screams go unheard inside or outside of them.

Arpita Das is a publisher (Yoda Press) and director of Yodakin, an alternative bookstore.

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