Delhi rape: What we can learn from the Colombia experience

By Rahul Tongia

Soon after the horrific case of brutal gangrape in a moving Delhi bus came to light, there have been many calls for harsh (and hopefully swift) punishment, such as life imprisonment, death penalty, “Bobbitisation”, chemical castration, etc.  The problem is that these are all post-crime actions; and there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that strong punishments are deter such crimes.

Certainly justice is also important, but short of fast-track courts for these (and other important) crimes, justice delayed is justice denied. A much more serious question is: what will these do for prevention of similar crimes?

Newspapers are full of technological and enforcement solutions, with more police on the street, GPS tracking, etc.  These are all helpful, but they don’t address some of the root causes. To adapt a scientific phrase, these may be necessary but not sufficient conditions (but the fact that they may be necessary is itself shameful).  There are two more suggestions for dealing with such tragedies. The first relates to individuals and society at large.  The second deals with employers and institutional actors.

 Delhi rape: What we can learn from the Colombia experience


Improving societal behaviour (rather, that of individuals) is difficult and takes time.  There are lessons we can draw from the revamping of Bogota, Colombia, which was also a chaotic and unsafe city just a few years back. Beyond just violence against women, there were drug cartels and terrorist attacks to deal with.  The change was successful not merely through local governance, democratisation, etc., but purposeful efforts to align the circles of society (see figure below). The local governments (several successive mayors) realised that no amount of laws (even with enforcement) would be enough as long as what people wanted to do (cultural norms) didn’t fit within the legal framework.

So what did they do? They started vast campaigns of public awareness, including hiring street mimes to embarrass people indulging in bad behaviour, not to mention handing out football style yellow and red cards (football in Colombia carries the passions of people akin to cricket combined with Bollywood in India). They also took a lot of steps to make it easy to do the right thing (soft paternalism), including creation of spaces for pedestrians, hawkers, paid parking, etc, so there would be order and legal options for all the above to coexist.  This improved broader compliance with the law.

While other steps such as rights for empowering women, gun take-backs, etc were also undertaken, it was a collective effort of citizens that ultimately worked, to the extent that Bogota has been called one of the more livable cities in the world, especially in developing regions.

Chart 1

So what can we do in Delhi and the rest of India? First and foremost, the cultural norm has to include respect for women, not only as subservient or in roles some think appropriate for them, but in any role that they choose, whether in a sari or a mini-skirt.  Perhaps there is value to the broken-window theory of societal behaviour, that small things, if considered acceptable (broken windows in abandoned and so-called troubled neighbourhoods), can lead to worse behaviour (vandalism, arson, theft, etc.).  This means zero-tolerance for bad behaviour and illegal behaviour, even if it not of the level of sexual assault or even eve-teasing.

People need to be empowered to speak up, and protected if they do so – the authorities must respond immediately, that too with compassion and without blaming the victim.  This isn’t just about those right there - the next time someone says (or thinks) “Mind your own business” – this IS our business.

The second step adds a new layer to the figure shown – the institutional framework and its incentives. In a substantial fraction of crimes against women (or others), the person(s) involved are not only employees (driver, guard, etc) but someone the public otherwise trusts to do the right thing.  Thus, we need employers to become proactive in preventing such acts.

This is not to suggest that employers be held fully responsible for what some select individuals do, but instead of criminal penalties, they could face civil penalties.  If they have a financial incentive to prevent such problems, they will try much harder to hire better workers and also be proactive in managing them.  While they may or may not undertake better background checks (lack of effective mechanisms for this are a problem), they will at least be aware of the issue and raise broader awareness amongst their other employees, who are often the first line of defence.

Here, we need not only legal (whistleblower) protection, but cultural protections.  These people aren’t troublemakers making life difficult for employers, but people helping the employer (and society at large).

What else can employers do? Short of a creating a surveillance society (video cameras and CCTV), they can also undertake mock scenarios to determine points of failure (such as dark passages in basements where someone can be easily trapped).  They can also manage their workforce such that pre-existing groups of people are split across shifts or locations.  According to reports, the Delhi bus rape involved people who knew each other well.  The bus should have had a randomly assigned “outsider” as part of the crew.  If that cannot be done in all cases, then newer staff and people who are an “unknown entity,” or otherwise higher risk, should be paired with more trusted staff, assigned daytime shifts, etc.

The point is that the specifics of what employers do could be left to them – as long as they want to improve things (and financial, contractual, and legal incentives are options), they will figure out the details.

This isn’t to dismiss technological solutions, such as an app for mobile phones that can instantly beam a distress signal with geo-coordinates, or even improved policing.  But, in the long run, only cultural shifts can diminish if not prevent such acts. But until we get there, let’s take any and every step we can that brings us closer.

Dr Rahul Tongia is a scholar and advisor on issues of technology and policy, currently based in Bangalore; he can be reached at  The views expressed are personal. 

Updated Date: Jan 01, 2013 22:34:05 IST