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But when was Mumbai safe?

September 02, 2013 11:11 IST

We have failed to acknowledge the volatile events that have changed Mumbai.

For the last few days we have been constantly told how Mumbai has become an unsafe city, what has gone wrong with it, etc. But let me ask, did Mumbai become unsafe suddenly, overnight?

The fact is, Mumbai became unsafe without us realising it, many decades ago. But the fact also is that we would like to romanticise Mumbai as a safe city.

So who decides whether a city is safe or not? Why is it that after the violation of a middle-class girl in a disused textile mill we suddenly wake up to the lack of safety in the city, while the editors of most news organisations trash reports of rapes in the city’s slums on a daily basis? Is the city more safe when a poor woman is raped?

Harsh questions, but the truth is equally bitter.

We all wake up from our collective slumber only when it pinches ‘us’. Sadly, with our indifference otherwise, we unwittingly rendered a huge population as potential criminals and suspects long ago.

We fail to acknowledge the volatile events that have changed Mumbai.

The demographics of just two cities say a lot. In 2011, Delhi had a population of 16.75 million and Mumbai 18.41 million. Today, add a few lakhs at least to the numbers.

The point I am making is that it is utopian to think that Mumbai is safe when the rest of India is not.

Unfortunately Mumbai has been forcibly profiled as a resilient and safe city. The fact is there always were two worlds that co-existed in one, and which rarely collided each other. However, now we are sending out a strong message to a majority of the ‘other’ that they are unwanted, for whatever reason -- economic, religious, social, physical, political.

Things began changing in the ’80s, also a time when the physical contours of the city first began to change. Politicians, land sharks and textile mill owners changed Mumbai permanently. That was also the first time the people began to face a brazen divide. Trade union leader Dr Datta Samant, on January 18, 1982, gave the call for a strike which resulted in nearly eight lakh mill workers losing their jobs. And Mumbai city was never the same again.

Nearly an entire generation of children of mill workers struggled with social stigma and abject poverty, and many got drawn into the underworld. It was only after the ’90s that the second generation of mill worker families got into new types of jobs and saw education as the key to progress. The first were the Dalits, who were shown the way much earlier by their leader Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, who strongly believed education is the weapon to progress.

The second turning point in this city's history was in 1992, when the riots ripped apart the city and the very concept of safety. This was followed by the serial bomb blasts in 1993. Since then Mumbai city hasn’t been the same. These events changed the religious and social fabric of Mumbai. Muslims were forced out cosmopolitan areas and today they are forcibly ghettoised. They face religious and social profiling along with the trauma of being constant suspects in every act of violence.

Soon the blurred lines dividing Mumbai started to disappear at a fast pace, which we failed to notice. Sadly, along with the changing contours, one section had not only breached but even encroached upon the other world blatantly. Many of us appreciated the expansion of roads and such infra projects through slum clearance, but we failed to acknowledge that those who were pushed outside the city limits were the poor from those slums. This left a growing majority feeling agitated and disconnected from a city that belonged as much to them.

We have witnessed so many other instances of such creeping intrusion in the last few years. Corrupt politicians and the police went on a moral policing overdrive. They banned dance bars, which left lakhs of people jobless. How can we have a city where a growing population of the poor sees another part of the city thrive and flourish? The feeling of deprivation has left a majority agitated, helpless and unwanted, but we brushed it aside as part of the development and growth process, which has been exclusive, not inclusive.

The feeling of being made to feel unwanted has turned into resentment. And what better example than the new methods of profiling, religious, social and caste-based (please look at the matrimonial columns of our newspapers to know how the young generation swears by it). At the international level, we saw racial and religious profiling because of 9/11. But we Indians have been shamelessly doing it since 1992.  

When the first mall came up in Mumbai, in Tardeo in South Mumbai, economic profiling was introduced to the volatile mix. Only those who wore a certain kind of clothes, carried cell phones, who ‘appeared’ to be in higher income slabs, were allowed entry. Never mind that it dismissed a huge segment of the population as potential criminals, not considered civil, and deemed unfit to enter. Nothing can be worse than such public humiliation.

When such incidents occur repeatedly in some form or the other, the rest of us need to understand that we may face possible repercussions, which could be violent. Saying this is not to condone such acts, in fact far from it. However, the fact is we haven’t taken cognisance of the wrongs in the first place, and these were moreover defended through strong political overtones and religious ideologies. Politicisation of all our systems has corrupted the politicians, police and bureaucrats who want to maintain the status quo. Interestingly this unifies the whole city, as all feel helpless and have lost faith in the law-makers.

Which leaves us with a pertinent question, how safe are we, and who is the offender?

Image: Shakti Mills in Mumbai, where a young photo-journalist was raped recently

Neeta Kolhatkar