New Link Road in Dahisar, on the northern edge of Mumbai, is a fairly broad street with busy traffic and adequate lighting, but local residents hesitate to walk down it, even during the day.
They are wary because of the mammoth Ganpat Patil Nagar slum on the seaward side of the road, in the midst of a lush mangrove forest — a sprawl of more than 8,000 shanties.
“There have been many instances of chain-snatching here over the past few years, and residents of the buildings here, both men and women, don’t feel secure walking along this road,” says local resident and activist Harish Pandey, a member of the New Link Road Residents’ Forum.
Pandey and the residents of Dahisar are not the only ones feeling a growing sense of insecurity.
Crimes such as thefts, attempted murders and assaults on women, children and the elderly are on the rise across Indian cities, and there is a growing belief that such criminality is a product of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and have-nots.
“Today, India is not able to cater to the needs of a large population of marginalised and unemployed people.
At the same time, the rich, who seem to lack a social conscience, indulge in vulgar displays of their wealth,” says Nandini Sardesai, a Mumbai-based sociologist.
“This ‘demonstration effect’ leads to a buildup of frustration amongst the less privileged.”
Pandey of Dahisar would agree. “It’s not that people from the middle and upper classes don’t commit crimes,” he says, “but in the case of petty crimes, most culprits tend to be from the lower classes.”
So is there an underlying class war in our unequal society leading to a rise in violent crime? Are unemployment, economic inequality and a hyper-consumerist culture creating volatile anger and resentment in the underdog? Or is this merely a way in which privileged imaginations stigmatise the poor?
The answers lie somewhere in between, at the intersection of a number of complex factors, say experts. The role of class conflict cannot be ignored in one’s understanding of crime in cities, particularly in a time of economic transition, says Sardesai.
Professor R Thilagaraj, head of the criminology department at Madras University, says this perspective of economic determination is clearly applicable in India today.
“When there is a polarisation of the rich and the poor and when labour laws are not implemented properly, deprivation could lead to crimes,” he adds.
However, he points out, another school of thought, called critical criminology, believes it is people in power in any society that determine the popular perception of crime, and most often, societies focus on crimes committed by the poor while ignoring a host of different kinds of crimes committed by the privileged.
This itself reflects a class conflict, says former Mumbai police commissioner Julio Ribeiro.
“The rape cases that get publicised, for instance, are usually ones in which the victim is from the middle class and the culprit is from the lower class,” says Ribeiro.
“Meanwhile, the vast number of crimes committed by the poor on the poor, or by the rich within their own homes, don’t attract much attention.”
While none of these arguments condone crime, they help explain the attitudes of a society towards criminality.
“We speak of ‘the poor’ as a homogenous group, label them lazy and morally suspect, and hang the blame for crimes on them. This is a way to make them seem unworthy of a right to the city and its resources,” says Gautam Bhan, a senior consultant at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Delhi.
Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Delhi-based Institute for Conflict Management, takes the argument a step further, attributing rising criminalisation in the country to an “environment of lawlessness led by the national elites and a collapse of the rule of law”.
“Violence in Indian society is led by a corrupt elite, many of whom have themselves resorted to crime to secure or sustain their power,” says Sahni. “That is the source of the increasing criminalisation.”