Not so safe cities – role of urban planning

This blog highlights that besides other factors that contribute to lack of safety in Indian Cities, a particular approach to urban planning and governance can trigger conflicts and violence in the cities.

By Darshini Mahadevia
Published: Monday 30 September 2013

This blog highlights that besides other factors that contribute to lack of safety in Indian Cities, a particular approach to urban planning and governance can trigger conflicts and violence in the cities.

Recent incidents of gang rapes in the metro cities of India, otherwise considered to be ‘progressive’, ‘liberating’, for women; increase in homicides and other violent crimes as understood through media reporting (it is not an outcome of better reporting); people spontaneously taking law into their own hands to make a point to the state (this includes as always venting ire on the public properties and the public buses being target of it); and perception of insecurity in general and by women in particular to venture out on empty/ deserted streets and public places, particularly when dark (and thus opting to be accompanied by a male irrespective of age), poses a question; are Urban areas becoming sites of violence in India?

This question in general, is Urban a metaphor for “high levels of violence, insecurity and disorder”? as Louis Wirth, American Sociologist of Chicago School, had asked some 75 years back. Wirth was concerned with the weakening of bonds of kinship, the declining social significance of the family, the disappearance of neighbourhood and the undermining of traditional basis of social solidarity. Implicit in this is alienation brought about by the modernization in production and family spheres. Wirth’s propositions have been discarded on account of different trajectories of development that the countries have gone through post the Second World War. Many countries have gone through the process of urbanization without experience of violence whereas some others have experienced high incidence of violence inspite of low levels of urbanization. In the former category would be some countries of South East Asia and China whereas in the latter the countries of Africa and now even South Asia.

In the Arab and middle-eastern world, urban violence has assumed an insurrection form. The Tahrir square has been spoken as the beginning of the Arab Spring that has now gone sour on various accounts. The Gezi Park redevelopment through privatization in Taksim square in Istanbul assumed a gigantic proportion of insurrection throughout Turkey. The insurrection in Turkey of the gigantic proportion was also on account of disaffection of people to the development philosophy and paradigm of the state along with Islamisation of the state, privatization of a public space triggered the violent protests.

In South Asia, the increase in incidence and reporting of violence is a recent phenomenon, of last decade or two, if insurgencies are discounted from the discussion (Sri Lanka and Nepal there have been long running insurgencies that have claimed lives). Certain cities such as Ahmedabad and Mumbai, have experienced repeated communal violence, often targeted at one community, creating fear psychosis in the city among all communities, who are then at the mercy of the mercenary political leaders, in absence of ‘State’ in protective and welfare sphere. The impact has been land speculation and people left to the mercy of land speculators, thus creating conditions of denial of housing rights to those who cannot afford. The youth, particularly the young men, get attracted to the gangs supporting land speculators and mafia, creating conditions for dispute / conflict resolution in land transactions through violence. Gangs also capture land, not necessarily public lands, creating violent conflicts to protect captured territories.

Wherever the state is absent, informal private operators have moved in. In transport sector, for example, the private buses run by operators tend to have political backing. The informalised workers employed in the sector work at low wages, but, they also have no accountability and address. Harassment of women in the public buses operated by private contract companies often has some workers who are not trustworthy for protecting women against sexual harassment. In Delhi gang rape case of December 2012, some of these workers were involved. Same high risk is with privately owned taxi services wherein the state regulation and control is very weak, putting women to high risk. Incidents of violent crimes against women have not come out from Bangalore, Delhi, etc. due to such privatised transport services.

The third confliction point is water supply. In absence of ‘public’ or ‘state’ providers, private providers step in. They often behave as mafia, coercing people to purchase water at a certain price. In supply shortage situations, the water mafia tend to capture the groundwater resources and then pump out the water and sell, at great cost to the people and the environment. In case the private water supply is through the tankers, there are conflicts among the people to get their share of water, which should otherwise have been available to the population through local government. Even, shortage of water supply in public taps, particularly in the low income settlements creates conflicts resulting in low-key violence. These conflicts are exhausting as they are chronic and create a psyche of aggression, which may outpour in violence on others, including violence turning internal within the household on weak members or external on those who are weak such as women on streets. While chronic lack of access to services and conflict-ridden living conditions are no justification for violence against women, the former indeed are one of the causes that need to be addressed in urban development policies and processes.

The fourth confliction area is when urban rehabilitation on account of development-induced displacement occurs (if at all there is rehabilitation). Displacement, more often than not is ruthless, is violence on the urban poor who are unable to find access to shelter due to speculative land markets and lack of state policy. Rehabilitation or even slum redevelopment, as it is on-going in many cities through the Basic Services for the Urban Poor (BSUP) component of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), have given rise to many conflicts, with regards to preparation of beneficiary list, wherein the locally connected and powerful tend to put their names while excluding the real occupants; elderly are thrown out of the household and subjected to domestic violence to exclude them from the benefits; single women members of a large household are excluded, and so on. The rehabilitation process is generally unmediated creating situations wherein people are left to their own devices or are again at the mercy of the local mercenaries. On the rehabilitation sites, which are often on the city periphery in desolate locations, creates conditions of threat and fear, wherein women are once again at high risk of violence.

Thus, we are in a situation of state withdrawal or weak state in urban contexts, putting the urban population to high risks of conflict and violence or threats of both. The women, and particularly the low income women who have no means to create private systems of their own for their safety, are at higher risk. While all other approaches, policies based on them, and mechanisms to implement these policies may be valid and needed, there is also need to look into the urban planning and governance policies and mechanisms to see whether they are contributing to increasing fear and threats in the urban areas and are contributing to increasing conflicts and violence in our cities.

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