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.