Making our cities safer

Last year when the smart cities development agenda was being talked about in the corridors of power and people had just no idea what it was all about, a group of senior bureaucrats of the Government of India, most of them unconnected with urban development ministry, was informally talking of this great idea of the Modi government, at a top five-star hotel in the national capital over a private dinner. The subject veered around to various aspects of the smart city concept and suddenly one bureaucrat who was directly dealing with this scheme, asked a question to all present in the small room. What one thing they would like to see added to their own ‘smart city‘?  One by one they replied as per their expertise, interests and priority, but one very senior police officer present there quipped: Safety!

And then all of them became quite serious. Yes, if a city were to be really smart, its citizens’ safety was of utmost importance. But that was nowhere in the agenda then (if it has been now factored in as a priority area, I have little idea).

It’s unfortunate that the uglier side of rapid and mindboggling urbanisation process is the absolute lack of safety in cities. Indian cities are getting unsafe by the day. What is more worrisome is the fact that even after the infamous Nirbhaya case of 2012 in Delhi, girls and women are far from being safe and secure in Indian cities. Delhi is now known as the rape capital of the world. What is more shameful than this?

About a decade ago, I had been chosen by the US Government to study their urban patterns of governance. What we saw firsthand in New York, and that became famous later, the New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani, soon after taking over as Mayor of America’s or the world’s financial capital, made the Megapolis a safer city. That was his top agenda because the city had become notorious for mugging, thefts and rapes.

Yes, in the US cities, the police work under mayors or in close tandem with them and that helps mayors in controlling law and order, unlike in India. In India, an SSP looks up first to the Chief Minister, then DGP, Chief Secretary and Home Secretary in that order. A slight variation depends on local situations. In some cases, he also listens more to the politician/minister who has got him the particular posting. Janata comes much down in his or her list, barring a few exceptions.

Indian scenario

When we say safe city, it apparently means three things: women and kids should be able to commute freely at any point of time, secondly, elderly persons should have much friendlier, safe traffic systems to go from one place to another on their own, and lastly, homes should be safe from burglars and thieves.

There is another perspective to this. Citizens should also be safe from faulty city infrastructure round the year which is the municipal body’s responsibility. Uneven roads, big pot holes which prove to be a nightmare for two-wheelers, stray dogs, encroached footpaths, unsafe cycling tracks, lack of electricity on roads, unruly traffic, water logging on roads during the rainy season and also during non- rainy days, electric wires hanging low in congested streets and so on are also risks to citizens. There are of course no bets on guessing if our cities are well equipped on these fronts or not. We all know how difficult it is for women to move about in a place like Kanpur or Kolkata; Indore or Patna. Unseen social changes, growing joblessness, influence of Bollywood, political meddling and a collective frustration among youth, added with caste factors are posing severe challenges for the police force all over the country in providing security cover to the average Indian. Some people do cite examples of Mumbai and Pune as cities which are so far safer for women returning home from offices or cultural evenings late in the evenings.

But should that not be the case in other cities as well? While technology in the shape of CCTV cameras, mobile phones and other alarms, and newer apps is coming to the aid, Indian cities are still not as safe as what we see in say, Singapore or Dubai, let alone in the developed western countries.

The issue of safety is quite complex, given the Indian context. In urban matters like planning a city or adding new facilities, the planners, be they engineers or architects, do not much consider safety issues from the beginning and thus seldom involve police officials and experts in the planning process. While putting up street lights, granting slums pattas, planning a flyover or starting a BRT, police do not play a decisive role at the planning level. The decision of the Kejriwal Government to do away with the BRT stretch after many complaints, massive inconvenience and accidents, is a fresh case of Delhi. In Indore, a very ambitious IAS officer on his own introduced BRT as district collector which flopped completely but not before claiming many lives and causing huge inconvenience to citizens. This raises an old basic question as to who should design a city and what should be an ideal process?  Should IAS officials be the city planners and managers? Can we afford to leave it entirely to them, rather than involve domain experts?

I am of the firm opinion that if Indian cities have to be safe for all, mainly women and senior citizens, then the police has to play a significant role, along with courts. Higher conviction rates would hopefully prove to be an effective deterrent.

Let me quote one instance here. It was sometime in 2012. I was posted in Maharashtra where I read a small news item about car-borne youths dragging a traffic police constable in Indore for more than 25 feet, holding his arm and driving their car with fun and with speed in broad day light. I was very disturbed not just because of my love for my city of Indore, but as a law- abiding Indian citizen. I felt an attack on an individual police official on duty was like challenging the entire official

system which works to protect society from crimes. Indore, incidentally is one city where, thanks to a big ruling party politician, goondaism has been steadily rising for the past decade with Chief Minister Shivraj Singh appearing to be a mute spectator. This could be the case of many other cities too. Well, what was the ‘crime’ of the hapless but duty-bound police constable? He had only stopped them from entering a one way street. When I called up the lady IGP Anuradha Shankar of Indore upon reading the news the next day and tried to plead with her to take the sternest action, she said they had already been booked and taken into custody for their bizarre crime. They were not habitual criminals but neo-rich agriculture family’s youth from an adjoining small district of Indore. That she was a very tough, no-nonsense officer was a solace for me and for most of Indoreans. What I mean to say is that if police swing into action swiftly and take the criminals to task with maximum punishment, only then will crime be controlled. It is easier said than done but there is no other way out. Rule of law seems the only working option as socio-economic conditions of the country continue to worsen. The sense of fear of punishment needs to be instilled into the minds of criminals. The Economic Times recently wrote that it’s a crying shame that the Crime and Criminal Tracking Network and Systems ( CCTNS) which was launched  in 2009 to link up the country’s police stations for electronic collection, storage and sharing of vital information is gasping for breath. The project was allocated an initial sum of Rs 2000 crore to be given to state governments to develop their own systems. In our system, introduction of new technologies, an honest set of police officials, non interfering political bosses, efficient justice delivery system and responsible NGOs can jointly make cities safer, the way we want them to be. Is that asking for a little too much? Well we have no options.

In an emerging economy like India, cities have to be safer and provide dignity to its citizens using multiple solutions.

If Indian cities have to be safe for all, mainly women and senior citizens, then the police has to play a significant role, along with courts. Higher conviction rates would hopefully prove to be an effective deterrent
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