A safe city no more: what went wrong in Mumbai

August 30, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters)

An increasingly globalized city that has grown indiscriminately, a metropolis where inequality festers, and an urban sprawl blind to the needs of the poor. Mumbai is where a twentysomething photojournalist was gang-raped by five men this month, shattering perceptions that it is India’s safest city for women.

Sociologists and historians say this was not an isolated incident, and warn of more attacks. They cite a growing class divide and pockets of uneven growth as factors linked to crimes against women, who are often victims of socially sanctioned oppression.

“When you see huge gleaming towers coming up in your neighbourhood and you are left with absolutely nothing, you are bound to feel resentment that will manifest itself,” said author and historian Gyan Prakash.

The men who raped the photojournalist lived in slums, and media reports say that they have raped before.

The crime scene was a deserted mill, a symbol of Mumbai’s changing social fabric, one that used to employ thousands of immigrants but was abandoned after a strike forced the owners to shut it.

Prakash said he wouldn’t directly link immigration to crime, but said the city no longer embraces or integrates newcomers in the social system.

“At the heart of this, a sense of rootlessness that the youth feel, there is a sense of not finding an anchor in the city,” he said.

That sense of rootlessness is evident in a Mumbai that is increasingly intolerant.

The city has a large number of immigrants, from within Maharashtra as well as from northern states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Local political parties Maharashtra Navnirman Sena and Shiv Sena blame immigrants for taking jobs away from city residents.

“The attitudes have changed for everybody,” said Shilpa Phadke, a professor at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences. “Post-1990 and globalization, the city has become a harder place for everybody.”

Phadke was referring to reports of Muslims finding it difficult to rent an apartment in the city, slums being indiscriminately demolished and a growing lack of empathy with anyone facing these problems.

“It is all the victim’s fault now. If your slum gets demolished, it is your fault you didn’t manage to get out of them,” said Phadke, who co-authored the book Why Loiter: Women and Risk on Mumbai Streets. “They are unapologetic about it. It isn’t hidden any more,” she said.

Mumbai is the financial capital of India, home to some of its richest citizens and the city that pays the most tax. It is also the capital of a state where 20 percent of the youth are unemployed. And it has the most rapes after New Delhi, about a third of the number of cases reported in India’s capital.

Days after the incident, Mumbai’s police commissioner said data showed a rise in rapes in Mumbai because police were urging women to report attacks, not because the city was becoming less safe.

Sociologists cite its efficient public transport and a large number of working women as points in the city’s favour.

But not all is well. The structure of the family has changed in Indian cities over the years, with multi-generational joint families giving way to nuclear families where the parents go out to work and the children are left unsupervised. Rising unemployment is making matters worse for the youth.

The tide of globalization has created pockets in Mumbai where unemployed young men feel like they have been disenfranchised and that society owes them, said sociologist Nandini Sardesai.

“The families of the accused (in the gang rape) had no idea what they were up to,” said Sardesai. “The hold of the family has loosened, the fabric is fraying and even though families still live together, they don’t have as much of a hold on their wards.”

(Follow Shilpa on Twitter @shilpajay)

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