Recent media reports say that the Delhi Police have decided to investigate the causes of the rising incidence of road rage. Psychologists have weighed in with suggestions about counselling and therapy.
There is perhaps no more a stereotypic form of urban violence than road rage. It combines different forms of urban life in intense measure: Traffic, speed, interactions with strangers, time pressure, and competitive lifestyles. The great danger, however, is to see urban violence through an individualised lens that can be ‘treated’ through curative therapy. In most cases, such violence is not committed by those with a mental illness. This simplistic perspective merely stigmatises a vulnerable group, the mentally ill.
What is ‘urban’ about urban violence? Cities produce, and are produced by, certain social, economic and political conditions that make for everyday forms of violence. Some important on-going research by Delhi’s Institute of Human Development and Ahmedabad’s CEPT University is seeking to grapple with such issues.
Urban violence derives from both deep-seated social factors as well as conditions of life created by State policy and private action. So, for example, road rage has as much to do with aggressive masculinity and urban stress as faulty traffic plans. What is required is an understanding of its social dimensions, rather than treating it like a medical problem.
There may be no immediate solutions to aggressive masculinity, but we can think of short-term measures that prevent its flagrant display. How, for example, are urban choke points created and allowed to persist because our traffic authorities continue to pay exclusive attention to ‘VIP movements’ and VIP areas rather than focusing on the condition of ordinary mobility? How does urban governance make city life pleasant for a small number at the cost of many? Urban policies can be the making of urban violence.
The violence that most city-dwellers experience is, actually, the ordinary violence of arbitrary urbanism. The uneven distribution of resources to the poor is one of these. Resource scarcity occurs through artificial means and creates conditions that have particularly serious implications for the most vulnerable such as poor women.
Cities round the world demonstrate that lessening of violence is dependent upon how well or badly administrators and planners understand urban conditions. The poor are not brutal by nature and do not require psychological counselling. Rather, they are brutalised by a complete lack of understanding of the processes and requirements of urban life.
Lack of access to formal State apparatuses is another kind of resource scarcity experienced by the poor. This forces them to seek assistance from a variety of informal — mafia-like — mechanisms that may deliver immediate assistance but also entangle them in vicious cycles of patronage-client relationships and unpredictable violence. This is the world of urban fixers and go-betweens who, for a price, secure different kinds of government documents required for life on the margins.
While, in principle, such documents should be available as a right, in practice, they are difficult to obtain as they are entangled in a chain of money-making that includes State functionaries. The poor find themselves in the midst of an urban inferno effectively created and supported by the State, their lives singed by the callousness of deficient governance.
Urban violence requires an understanding of the peculiarities of urban life and aspirations. Most importantly, we must identify those contexts where useful interventions can be made, rather than imagine that pervasive social structures can be changed overnight. It is imperative that we find practical ways of avoiding the situation where (in the words of the poet Amrita Pritam) ‘every house is like a clenched fist’.
Sanjay Srivastava is a professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal