Two news items I read recently bothered me enough that I would put other, pressing <cough> matters aside to write this post. Since a very busy semester is about to begin, I cannot promise to be very regular with posting, but I hope I do not let my readers down too much. I will try to post something at least once a week from hereon.
I have been doing some writing about the question of “encroachers” on streets, and this is the first in a series of posts on the subject.
I do not, in general, like elevated roads or elevated walkways. I find that elevated roads do nothing to reduce congestion and present difficulties to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. Elevated walkways are aimed at separating pedestrians from street vendors – I find such attempts misdirected because hawkers offer crucial services to pedestrians.
But this article is about another aspect of grade-separated roads and walkways: security. On one hand, I find that these elevated constructions create dark spots below – spots likely to become havens of crime. On the other hand, some of the elevated walkways are themselves thinly used – because pedestrians do not like to climb up several flights of stairs for a short walk – and thus run the risk of crime too.
Crime is related to a number of factors, of course, and it is incredibly difficult to understand and explain. One theory that explains crime is the idea that “eyes on the street” prevent crime – i.e. people do not commit crimes when there are enough people looking at what’s going on in the street. This theory has been articulated, among others, by Jane Jacobs, in her masterpiece “The Death and Life of Great American Cities“. And if you want evidence, just look at the crime records of Delhi and Mumbai – the empty streets of Delhi’s “planned colonies” are famously unsafe for girls and women at any time past 10 PM, while Mumbai’s crowds give everyone a sense of safety unparalleled in any major city of India.
Going by that understanding, it would follow that street vendors and homeless persons would be welcome on streets – between the two groups, they occupy the streets at all times of the day and night, providing stray walkers at night the security of not having to worry about being the only person on the street. And yet, we find that governments respond to their presence in exactly the opposite manner – they are routinely harassed and made to pay bribes or evicted. For instance, in an underground pedestrian crossing (between the city railway station and the city bus station) in Bangalore, the municipal corporation evicted all hawkers, homeless people and transgenders – claiming that these “encroachers” made it inconvenient for pedestrians to use the crossing. It was later reported that the hawkers have come back, after having bribed the police.
Another news item informs us that in Mumbai’s new elevated walkways will have security personnel to ward off hawkers and homeless people from using them. This seems to be a rather costly replacement for what could have been free security for pedestrians on the walkway, but then, the very intention of the city was to provide hawker-free footpaths. They would get security to keep people from “encroaching” the elevated walkways when they could have gotten these “encroachers” to themselves serve as security – at so much less expense and freeing up so much time of the already overworked Mumbai Police.
Hawker-pedestrian interactions, I am beginning to find, are incredibly complex, and there are synergies as well as conflicts to deal with. This article will not go into all these relationships but focus on the security aspect alone. The question is this: do hawkers and homeless persons act as “eyes on the street” and make streets safer for all?
Instinctively, a middle-class Indian does not look at the presence of a poor hawker or beggar as a source of comfort. Middle-class perceptions regarding the poor tend to brand them as unscrupulous persons who are likely to engage in criminal acts. And yet, I do not believe that such impressions should be acted on -as they are based on prejudice and are neither representative of the perceptions of the majority, nor in any way related to reality. Further, I would argue that police harassment of homeless persons, hawkers and transgender persons has the effect of pushing them to form links with the mafia – if the police denies them protection and legal use of public spaces, what option do they have but to go to the criminal elements of society?
There is something very nefarious about branding an entire group of persons as possible criminals – whether it be homeless persons, hawkers, transgender persons or anyone else. This is a method of control famously adopted by the British Raj through the Criminal Tribes Act, and it has no place in independent and democratic India. And yet, a lot of what the police does has precisely that intent and effect. And as a result, the protectors of public space are turned into criminals – a very good method of increasing crime, but a terrible way of protecting our citizens.
On the other hand, if hawkers and homeless people were to be treated with just a little sensitivity, they might serve, through their own sufferings (try sleeping on a metal floor on a cold winter night) as valuable guards for public spaces.