Live in denial if you will, but here is a fact: Urbs prima in Indis, that generous colonial christening, is a title that no longer sits well on Mumbai’s furrowed brow. In fact, this city has lost every title she earned, and deservedly so: No longer fashion capital, definitely not culture/film capital, the less said about doing business in Mumbai the better, completely ignored by international gigs, never a big food destination. And if that was not enough, rapid urban decay is matched here by even more alarming social decay, led ably by the moral police and the language chauvinists, oftentimes one and the same.
But that is not why I’ve long been skeptical of arguments contending that Mumbai is a safe city for women. Because as a woman and a journalist in Mumbai, I’ve been acutely aware that however convincing the arguments may be from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), this is hardly a safe city.
Yes, I took the last train home for years, travelling almost always in an empty first class compartment, and got home safe to jittery parents. Yes, there is something empowering about using public transport at that hour, or standing by the sea with traffic whizzing past at 1 am. But does that make Mumbai safe? The 13-year-old rape survivor I met more than a decade ago in a government institution didn’t think so; the HIV-positive woman living on the streets near Lamington Road with her toddler playing in traffic didn’t think so; the family of a woman bludgeoned to death by her son for refusing to hand over some cash didn’t think so.
For the record, the 2012 data from NCRB shows Delhi has witnessed more rapes than the other metros put together and accounts for nearly 15 pc of crime against women in urban India. Even Bangalore accounts for 6 per cent, so it follows that Mumbai’s 4.86 per cent certainly appears less frightening. So, would you show these statistics to the parents of our latest survivor?
No, statistics are a luxury reserved for the lucky ones, like me. And today, statistics have only guilt to offer me, guilt for getting so lucky. Lucky when I walked two kilometres on a deserted highway at midnight after a colleague dropped me half-way, lucky on every graveyard shift, lucky that the guy who groped me at Thane station didn’t have a weapon when I hit him, and luckier still that intrepid colleagues I despatched on late night assignments got home safe each time. You’ve done much the same and got away too? Share the guilt, sister. The safe-city-statistics can be consumed another day.
Admittedly, safety is a relative term. A view of and by a city of working professionals must naturally include comparisons with rampaging crime against women elsewhere. Even so, the safe city tag annoys me. In the first three months of this year, at least one rape case was registered in Mumbai every day, according to data accessed by an RTI activist. That does not include the countless cases of molestation, groping, flashing and other violent crimes. The NCRB’s Mumbai-specific data shows a rising number of rape complaints too, so just how we’re still a safe city escapes me.
But perhaps we’re most unsafe in the long, long chasm between the young professionals who now call Mumbai home and an ageing law enforcement system that never reskilled itself nor ever came to understand the new city. From the constables I met occasionally on the last train home who never failed to chastise me for being out so late to our commissioner of police who embarrassed an entire city when he contended that sex education heightens crimes against women, Mumbai’s law enforcers simply belong to some other era.
Investigations still mean rounding up suspects and subjecting them to brutal forms of interrogation or falling back upon a thinning network of informants. Newfangled urban crime-fighting techniques are for television viewers only.
Across this decrepit city, all manner of criminals occupy open spaces brazenly – open stretches along railway tracks, abandoned mill lands, space under flyovers, traffic islands, the darkened pavements behind double-parked trucks, poorly lit sea-fronts.
And yet, it is the dance bars that have been closed for years, canoodling couples banished from seafronts to dodgy lodges in the outback, the ‘kissing benches’ of Wadala’s Five Gardens turned into single-seaters, Bollywood poster designers fallen in line, the plastic cleavage of shopfront mannequins sporting satin bras set to go soon too. How does it come to be then that the incidence of rape has, gasp, not dropped in India’s safest city for women?
The trajectory of the coming days is predictable – discussions on chemical castration and capital punishment, Reclaim-The-Night events where groups of women dare the city to hurt them, morchas to police stations, maybe to Gateway of India or Hutatma Chowk, depressing data on abysmal conviction rates in rape trials and, finally, maybe, some correct noises from the State on law and investigation reform.
True to new tradition in Mumbai, there will also be more calls to ban other things not banned yet. Maybe they’ll ban entry into mill lands this time, all for a safer city.