Puzzling questions of safety

The recent attacks in Bombay pose a perplexing security problem for Indian cities. A place like the Taj Hotel is relatively easily guarded. There is only one real entrance, and the management has enough money and enough at stake to privately guarantee the safety of guests. But what about Chattrapati Shivaji Terminus, the train station where 60 people were killed?

I took a train from CST last week, and when I first arrived there, I was completely baffled: how on earth would a place like this ever be secured against a terrorist attack? Around me, the station was warm and chaotic with bodies — people had spread blankets on the floor and were eating dinner or sleeping. Other passengers stepped around them holding bags, making their way towards numerous entrances and exits, towards trains and platforms and food vendors. How would the police ever be able to identify potential terrorists in this crush of people?

However, the longer I sat in the train station, the more I realized that there was a more important question: should CST ever be secured against a terrorist attack? People were using the train station for many things besides coming and going to trains. Laborers carried loads to and from the trains. A woman sold me tea from a metal carrier. Vendors came and went, using the station to earn their livelihood. The train station is highly porous, and its porosity is part of its essential character, part of the role that it serves in the city. Increased security, here and in other public spaces in India, would inevitably result in a constriction of their many informal uses.

What is ironic is that it is these informal uses of public spaces that make Indian cities, for the most part, extremely safe, especially for women. I saw one woman enter with her two children and lay down on blankets on the floor of the station. They were clearly homeless, and were using the train station as a safe place to sleep for the night. Another old woman went to sleep on the chairs next to mine.  So an increase in one kind of safety, safety from terrorist attacks, would make public spaces significantly less safe in other ways.

Take a look at Delhi, the city in India which has done the most to curb its street life. Delhi is notoriously unsafe, and particularly unsafe for women. According to this Times of India article, the latest statistics show that Dwarka, a neighborhood in the south west of the city, has the highest crime rate within the city. That came as no surprise to me: Dwarka looks like one of Le Corbusier’s drawings come to life: tall, uniform apartment buildings placed regularly on wide streets surrounded by gated compounds. If a cluster of huts appears, it is quickly cleared by the authorities. Street vendors are few and far between, and pedestrians too, since distances between shopping areas and residences are too far to be covered by foot. It is an Indian city, but there’s nobody on the streets! So how could you expect them to be safe? The kind of policing of public spaces that would guarantee safety from terrorists would likely destroy the safety that results from the vibrant street life of Indian cities. As a woman, I am extremely concerned about that.

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3 comments
  1. Mash said:

    Quite right, Nithya. How do we retain the security of a vibrant country like India with a billion people? I might sound extremely pessimistic, but I do not think it is possible to secure one billion of them at all times, without slowing down their chaotic movement considerably. The chaotic movement of people ironically is the way India works best, and there isn’t another way it would work. When you talk about India, it is humanity in excess, be it railway stations, markets or shopping malls. A small disturbance (natural or unnatural) could cause hundreds of casualties, in limited space. So its always about lack of space, lack of resources, lack of everything else.
    The questions to be asked to secure this are..
    How do we sustain this chaos? How do we secure this chaos? How do we build systems and processes to effectively use this chaotic environment to secure it? Answers to that would be real security. Anything else would only give a false sense of security, like scanning machines in Chennai central station or at Spencers plaza mall.

    To quote my favorite writer Kapuscinski…writing about the civil society in Cairo, Egypt in the 1960s,

    “Now walking around the city, I began surveying the streets more closely. They all had eyes and ears. Here a building janitor, there a guard, over there a motionless figure in the beach chair, a bit farther on someone standing idly, just looking. Many of these people were not doing anything in particular, yet taken together, their multiple lines of vision created a crisscrossing, coherent, panoptic observation network, covering the entire space of the street, on which nothing could occur without it being noticed. Noticed and reported.

    It is an interesting subject: superfluous people in the service of brute power. A developed, stable, organized society in the community of clearly delineated and defined roles, something that cannot be said of the majority of Third World cities. Their neighborhoods are populated in large part by an unformed, fluid element, lacking precise classification, without position, place, or purpose. At any moment for whatever reason, these people, to whom no one pays attention, whom no one needs, can form a crowd, a throng, a mob, which has an opinion about everything, has time for everything, and would like to participate in something, mean something.

    All dictatorships take advantage of this idle magma. They don’t even need to maintain an expensive army of full-time policemen. It suffices to reach out to these people searching for some significance in life. Give them the sense that they can be of use, that someone’s is counting on them for something, that they have been noticed, that they have a purpose.

    The benefits of this relationship are mutual. The man of the street, serving the dictatorship, starts to feel at one with the authorities, to feel important and meaningful, and furthermore, because he usually has some petty thefts, fights, and swindles on his conscience, he now acquires the comforting sense of immunity. The dictatorial powers, meantime, have in him an inexpensive – free, actually – yet zealous and omnipresent agent-tentacle. Sometimes it is difficult to even call this man an agent; he is merely someone who wants to be recognized, who strives to be a visionable, seeking to remind the authorities of his existence, who remains always eager to render a service.”

    I read this right after the Bangalore and Ahmedabad bomb blasts, in the train on my way back to Delhi. I was thinking that this is exactly the kind of enemy the world is facing now – a bunch of bad guys who live amongst us, which leaves us either profiling at one end or just believing the bad guy isn’t our neighbor. A country might have the strongest army or a very efficient law enforcement mechanism, but to actualize it, the enemy needs to be defined. The enemy in these cases, unfortunately, is undefined.

    The system that the Egyptian dictators used was to take advantage of the idle magma in the society. I think it’s a pretty efficient system if tied to the law enforcement mechanism, and would make our streets safer. There are lessons to be learnt from even dictators, after all.

    In India, there are many clusters of these people that could be used by the police, starting from chai shop owners to hawkers on the streets. They spend a lot of time watching people, are extremely observant and largely know whats happening in the neighborhood, with very little margin of error. As far as intelligence gathering goes, they are better than the local police. Rather than the police harassing them after the incidents, they ought to informally legitimize these groups and make them feel ‘part of the system’. A random thought, really.

  2. nraman said:

    Mahesh, thank you so much for your comment. Not to sound super cheesy, but I feel honored that something I wrote produced such a thoughtful response. What you are talking about is already happening to some extent — when i was in Bombay, I saw numerous signs in English exhorting citizens to take safety into their own hands — creating citizens’ watch committees and providing security for their own neighborhoods. I was immediately worried, because how would people identify criminals in their neighborhoods, especially when you have neighborhoods as large as they are in Bombay? They’re not going to recognize outsiders, they’re just going to single out people who look different. I imagine that this will result in discriminatory behavior against Muslims and lower class residents, particularly informal vendors, pavement dwellers, and domestic help. Yes, we need more security, but there has to be a better way than this.

    Maybe your suggestion of looking to street vendors themselves for help, since they have their eyes on the street at all times, is a good one. But maybe the problem needs to be addressed at a far, far earlier stage. I imagine that a well implemented employment guarantee program in Pakistan would do more to reduce the threat from terrorists than any number of citizens’ watch brigades. And don’t forget in the Northeast as well. I think if we’re resorting to citizens’ watch committees as our defense against terrorism, we’ve already lost. Thanks again, and I hope you continue reading! –Nithya

  3. Mash said:

    Nithya, I was suggesting street vendors and the like (‘eyes on the street’) as a supplemental model to gathering intelligence, and in no way as a substitute for law enforcement. That said, there is a gap in planning and implementation of laws and protocols (anti-terrorism law, internal securty agency formation, coordination, etc) and during this ‘gestation period’, the larger population stays vulnerable. Terrorist attacks seem to be very creative and hence, there needs to be a more dependable, reliable and consistent source of intelligence to the the law enforcement mechanism. Your observation of ‘community vigilance’ in Mumbai is a good example, however, I am arguing for a much systemized way of exploiting the ‘idle magma’ Kapusinski refers to in his book.
    And to your last point on changing things in Pakistan…that would be the last thing I want to think or my government to focus. I would take the worst case scenario (Pakistan as the country where terror originates for whatever reason not in my control) and build contigency measures to meet unexpected events that stem out of this instability.
    You had said, “They’re not going to recognize outsiders, they’re just going to single out people who look different. I imagine that this will result in discriminatory behavior against Muslims and lower class residents, particularly informal vendors, pavement dwellers, and domestic help.”
    – I think your argument stems from a comparison of ‘racial profiling’ in the US and the West. People do not look different in India as much as blacks from asians from whites. So, I do not see it is would be the case in India. I think people are to a large extent comfortable and trust their neighbors, except maybe Gujarat where people are politically indoctrinated. I would keep that disparity in mind, but not go down that path as the primary reason why I would not be comfortable with community vigilance. Rather, find it a reason to make them work together.

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