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Why Pallavi's murder was an entirely preventable tragedy

By RK Raghavan

I can quite gauge the outrage of the average Mumbaikar over the brutal murder of Pallavi Purkayastha (25), a young lawyer trying to find her feet in the profession, allegedly by a security guard, Sajjad Ahmed Mughal, hailing from Uri in J&K.

Our hearts go out to the parents – an IAS couple posted in Delhi - whose sorrow will be inestimable. The incident is so gruesome that none of us can be faulted if we tend to overreact as also generalise that the Indian woman is becoming increasingly vulnerable to the male predator.

The Mumbai crime comes close on the heels of the reported suicide in Delhi of a former air hostess who had allegedly been driven to desperation by a former Haryana Minister and his aide. All this has happened even before we had recovered from the shocking molestation of a young woman by a gang of thugs near a bar in Guwahati just a few weeks ago.

All three crimes point to one unassailable conclusion: the young urban woman professional is becoming easy prey to the prowler masquerading as an employer, friend or  protector (read: security guard).

The National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) statistics may not be alarming. But the marginal increase under various heads of crime that its annual publication, Crime in India, portrays does not correctly reflect or take into account the scare that every act of violence like the Mumbai murder generates across a cross-section of the population, and especially among women.

Each year the publication reports a marginal increase that makes the whole exercise dubious. Rightly or wrongly, citizens evaluate crime not on the basis of statistics, but mainly by the quantum of fear that it evokes. By this token the killing of Pallavi is bound to terrify the normally placid Mumbai woman who had been made to believe for generations that Mumbai was about the safest city in the country. While this type of crime can happen anywhere in the world, the point is Mumbai cannot any longer be smug that it is safe or that it takes particular care of its women.

Pallavi Purkayastha.

In this outrage, while the police seem less culpable, the community that shared the multi-storied apartments with Pallavi may have been at fault. The latter frantically ran from apartment to apartment for help, but did not get it before her life was brutally snuffed out. I was not surprised when I saw on TV one resident slamming the door on a reporter when the latter sought her views on the episode. This epitomised the attitudes of the citizenry in the face of crime and its reluctance to get mixed up with anything that even remotely demanded shades of public duty and accountability.

The Pallavi murder highlights two features of the current urban setting. The policing of high-rise residential buildings is complex, and the police seem to have no clue. Also, they are almost totally kept out of such structures. Those who live there do not fancy any intrusion of their privacy by law enforcement. The police are not unhappy about this because it means less work for them, and therefore pass the buck on to private security agencies.

The second factor highlighted by the incident is the growing importance of private police, despite its glaring inadequacies. The mind-boggling expansion of cities has put a huge burden on the regular police which the latter is unable to discharge. As a result citizen protection is purely at the mercy of private agencies which are understaffed and incompetent.

As one directly handling them I can vouch for their Himalayan inefficiency and greed. This harsh judgment applies also to agencies which have international operations and gain business on the basis of past reputations and not on present performance. Unable to cope with the huge demands made on them by both industry and the galloping numbers of housing complexes, they recruit their guards from the farthest corners of the country who have no knowledge of the local language or topography.

Chennai is now flooded with young men from Jharkhand, Bihar and the North East who are ignorant of the local culture and language. I suppose this is the situation in the other metros as well.  They are just individual bodies who are illiterate or, at best, semi-literate. They are untrained and very poorly paid, with no motivation whatsoever. Also they are picked up at such short notice, there is hardly any background check, facilitating thereby the entry of those with either a criminal record or psychiatric problems.

It will be interesting to find out details of the profile of Sajjad Ahmed. I bet he squares with whatever I have said here in terms of lack of education and motivation.

It is also a fact that many residential blocks go stingy when it comes to spending on security. With some extra investment on technology, many buildings can be far better protected than now. Strict regulation of visitors through inexpensive gadgets will greatly strengthen security. A central alarm on every floor, if not in every house, could have saved Pallavi’s life. Currently, builders wash their hands off once they have sold their flats. They have no accountability whatsoever. There is possibly therefore a case here for a tightly-drawn legislation that prescribes standards of security to be adopted while residential buildings are being constructed.

As far as I know, government organizations (such as the DDA, CMDA, HUDA, et al) which regulate the construction of private apartments, do not have any concept of  security whatsoever. This should change as soon as possible. Or else we will have many more Pallavis to grieve over.

A final word about the police in our urban centres. They are overwhelmed by the rise in population. More than this, the diversity of the influx into cities is something that the police do not comprehend or are ill-equipped to deal with. The influx is mainly in the form of cheap labour at construction sites, which include the ongoing metro train projects in cities like Chennai and Bangalore.

The close monitoring activities of migrant labour is a vital task. The police are too distracted to undertake this. In many of our big cities, continued huge arrivals from outside generate a multiplicity of problems which have an impact on infrastructure, as well as the security needs of local citizens. State governments look the other way when confronted with such intricate challenges. This is why our cities are in such a mess and hotbeds of crime. I will not be surprised if crime escalates further in the near future and render policing a hopeless exercise.

The author is a former Director of the CBI

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