By Zafar Sareshwala and Asifa Khan
A recent multi-city survey by CNN-IBN and Hindustan Times suggests that Ahmedabad may be the safest city for women, with 88 percent thinking so.
There is a reason for this. Safety is partly the result of the administration developing a firm grip on law and order, including control of organised crime. And there is a story to this development in Ahmedabad. As a dry state, Gujarat was once known for its underworld dons, with bootlegging being the main reason for their rise to criminal power. Powerful criminal dons cannot really exist without a nexus between them, the politicians and the police. This was the reality in the 1980s and 1990s, and this nexus was a critical factor in the rise of communalism in the state, since rioting turned out to be a profitable activity for the people concerned and it was usually stage-managed by the powers-that-be.
This nexus had vitiated the atmosphere so much that it was impossible for most people to venture out of their homes late at night.
Towards the late 1990s, the law enforcers realised that things had gone too far, and soon many underworld dons from both sides of the communal divide were either put in jail or forced to wind up shop. They vanished. By 2003, boot-legging was on the decline, and the associated criminal enterprises also started folding up.
In fact, when the authors of this article talked to a very senior police officer in Ahmedabad who also controls law and order, they were told that the previous hotspots of criminal activity had become safer. He said: “There has been no FIR registered in those police stations which were earlier epicentres of all criminal activities over the last eight to nine years.”
The fact that Ahmedabad and most of Gujarat has been riot- and-curfew-free after 2002 suggests that the overall peace dividend has resulted in improved safety for women too.
Meanwhile, the high growth trajectory of the state has improved job opportunities. Once the youth start finding a regular source of income and urban unemployment starts tapering off, the attraction of criminal activity diminishes.
Ahmedabad's night life today has to be seen to be believed. In other metro cities, night life is confined to pubs, discotheques and star hotels, where excess imbibing of liquor is the mother of all vices and presumably critical to this form of relaxation. In contrast, Ahmedabad's night life is relatively free from liquor, and is lived out mostly on the streets – not in pubs or discos.
Manek Chowk and Law Garden are just two examples. Young girls on their Scooties hang out here long past midnight and various other lively spots in Gujarat’s capital city.
There are very few places in the country where you will find women street vendors plying their trades as late as 2 am. You will also increasingly find scores of Muslim families, including burkha-clad women, as pillion riders at various spots such as CG Road and SG Road. Once upto a time, even Muslim men would not venture out at night.
Don’t get us wrong. We are not saying people don’t drink liquor in Gujarat. They do so in private parties, but they dare not venture out after getting drunk because the police not only lock them up but are publicly named and shamed, with their photographs being published. The near-absence of drunkards in public places is an important contributor to women’s safety in Ahmedabad. In fact, Muslim women travelling alone is now a common sight in the city.
The safety standard of any city will be judged by the safety of its women. In most cities around the country and particularly in the metros, the easy availability of alcohol (when even water is scarcer) and non-existent policing make public places unsafe. In Ahmedabad and several other cities of Gujarat, you will find visible police persons and patrols. This inhibits criminals.
The authors believe that night life ought to be about food and merriment and good behaviour, and not juiced by alcohol. This will bring families out to claim the night life rather than just criminals and mischief-mongers.
(Asifa Khan is a member of the Gujarat BJP, and Zafar Sareshwala is a Gujarati businessman who opened a dialogue with Modi to improve the lot of Muslims in Gujarat)