Of safe cities and governance!

Among the essential conditions for any society to be called developed and modern, an element of safety of its citizens should be of paramount importance. There should be no two opinions about that now

Urbanisation narratives that one comes across lay much less importance on safety aspect of the entire urbanisation process. It is not in India alone but is seen world over, barring some exceptions where safe city projects are being implemented say, in Mexico or some Russian cities, besides a large chunk of European cities.

Urbanisation in India is gaining exceptional momentum as part of the newly placed thrust on it by the Narendra Modi Government and the major policy shift is now sinking well into the public psyche. At no point of time in the last seven decades of the country’s independence, did the city get so much focus in official scheme of things. With cities touted as future habitat units, migration from rural into urban areas is the natural side effect. The exodus is steadily growing.

Here then comes the safety aspect about which not many agencies in government and outside it seem to be thinking. I have been studying urbanisation trends and its various aspects and sub themes, but urban safety comes very low on the ladder of priorities of urban policy makers, scholars and practitioners. A large number of scholarly books authored by eminent people talk about scientific urban planning, land use patterns, education, agriculture, environment, urban transport mechanism, jobs creation, pollution, drinking water supply or even heritage conservation. No complaints about that. But where is the safety angle fitted into the official scheme of things? Sadly, it is largely missing from the urbanisation discourses for a long time now. It needs to be brought into the mainstream of urbanisation dialogue before it is too late. The National Crime Record Bureau (NCRB) and other police research organisations have been reeling out figures of growing crimes, new types of crime, pressure on police departments to handle ever increasing population but the urban planners have yet to give their serious and adequate thought to urban safety issues. In fact, the Smart Cities Mission, in its official document, released by Union Minister for Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu last year lists “the core infrastructure elements in a Smart City” but attaches low importance to safety issue.

The approach to the 10 priorities enlists, in that order, the following:

(i) adequate water supply,
(ii) assured electricity supply,
(iii) sanitation, including solid waste management,
(iv) efficient urban mobility and public transport,
(v) affordable housing, especially for the poor,
(vi) robust IT connectivity and digitalization,
(vii) good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation,
(viii) sustainable environment,
(ix) safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly and lastly
(x) health and education.

All these issues may have been frozen after due consultation with municipal corporations, urban affairs departments of the state governments and so on but when we are discussing urban safety, this is the official picture. Needless to say, other priorities enlisted by the official document are indeed important but safety of people for whom the cities are being made smart cannot lag behind other amenities. There is no logic that can support pushing the burning issue of safety way below on the priorities ladder. Across the world, safety is high on the priority list.

For example, New York City which was very unsafe and was converted into a safer city by its then Mayor because he (Rudi Giuliani) had realised that no international city of the size and stature of NY can afford to be unsafe from any angle you look at it. It affects its economy, image and has social and political ramifications.

But what is the Indian scenario? Pretty dismal. There was an unprecedented competition among cities to earn the tag of a smart city. Naidu is on record saying in Parliament that CMs and MPs would beg a “smart city” from him wherever he went while the process was on. Such was the hype created across the country for a smart city.

 

Safety: What it means

In today’s times each segment of the society is vulnerable to one or the other kind of danger while living in a city. Theft, burglary, murders, financial scams, rapes, road accidents, natural disasters, domestic violence against women and children, sexual harassment of women, riots, fires, cyber crimes, land grabbing and so on. There is an urgent need to insulate people living in cities from these and more emerging crimes.

Providing urban safety-so far-appears to be the sole concern of the police department in most of the states. But is it fair that just one department be made responsible to tackle such a huge and onerous task? City Mayors and Corporators, and urban administration officials must be sensitised towards this. The duty of social organisations and NGOs is no less as they are expected to guide and train people for responsible behaviour. Safety cannot just be left to the government. People have their own role and a definite one in this regard. Proper driving on roads, observing road safety rules, using technology correctly, keeping their house and property safe, looking after their senior citizens and children, mainly young girls is also responsibility of people, among many other things. Safety is a joint responsibility of people and state but state is the Big Brother in this case.

 

Policing in cities

Police is a state subject…providing safety to ordinary people is the main job of the police but if they were doing so very efficiently, safety may not have warranted so much attention as it does now. While the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) supports modernisation of police force in states and union territories, the financial and technical help is clearly inadequate. In many big cities, it is common to see gated communities employing ever mushrooming private security services to protect their housing society and clutch of apartments. The proliferation of such illiterate guards, though not trained in any skill whatsoever, regulate the inflow and outflow of people into large set ups of high rise apartments in the metropolis. They also provide a ‘semblance of security’ (not in real terms) to lakhs of ATMs of several banks. Is that an indication that police machinery has completely failed? Or is it a new PPP model of safety measures in our cities?

We must also realise that security is a perception. But if that perception is strong, it will have desired impact in bringing down crime rates in any country. While increase in police force and their intensive training has no alternative, round the clock use of CCTV cameras, deployment of plainclothes men, proper set ups of control rooms, vehicles with modern gadgets, society-police interface, well equipped police stations, upgrading of technologies for surveillance in market places, airports, railway stations and educational institutions is the need of the hour.

There is also another aspect of safety and that is the justice delivery system which is far from satisfactory. Supreme Court Chief Justice T S Thakur himself has said that about 70,000 judges are required today in different courts to dispose of pending cases in India. If a criminal is not really afraid of being booked and punished adequately and quickly, the rule of law cannot tighten its grip on people who indulge in crimes. More than cure, precaution is more important in this case.

But this is about law and order situation, what about safety of people from natural and man-made disasters? Recent flooding on Gurugram streets is very fresh in the mind. People may not have lost lives like they did in Chennai last year and in Mumbai in 2005, but what about the ordeal they faced? Who is responsible for that kind of a havoc? Was it natural or manmade? It was clear and anguishing failure of our urbanisation systems and governance.

 

Collaboration

Indian city managers, officials in Niti Aayog, Mayors, Police Commissioners, IGP, DIGs and SPs and Urban Development bureaucracy and academia must bring citizen safety issue on top priority to not only provide a safe environment to citizens but also improve governance system, ensure economic growth, a peaceful society and bring in happiness.

And there lies the solution of a comprehensive safety policy for cities. The government at the Centre does not tire talking of growth, growth and growth…but that is impossible without taking the right measures to provide round the clock safety and also give people a feel that they are living in a safe city. That is also the duty of the State under the constitution!

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