Living on the edge: Here’s why you are seeing more aggression on roads
There’s a term for the violence spilling over on streets and in trains, in general stores and gyms. It’s urban rage, and is typical of overpopulated cities in transition. Here’s why you probably feel it toolifestyle Updated: Apr 03, 2016 12:57 IST
You know that surge of anger you feel when you’re driving home and the car ahead of you slows, stops, or suddenly brakes? You either grit your teeth and swear, or roll down your window and shout out an obscenity.
As soon as the traffic is moving again, you take a deep breath and feel better. Sometimes, you wonder why you let your blood pressure shoot up for the sake of a few seconds.
It’s not just you, and there is a range of reasons why.
The catch-all term for it is urban rage. It’s a tendency to irrational anger that is symptomatic of high-density cities in transition. As infrastructure fails to keep pace with growing numbers, inequality — whether actual or perceived — becomes the first breeding ground for this kind of rage, followed by stress, an intensifying rat race, and a sense of being cheated of one’s due.
“It is not exclusive to one class of people. It is prevalent and growing among the poor, middle-class and millionaires,” says Dr Vivek Benegal, professor of psychiatry at Bengaluru’s National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences. “Behind it is a growing anomie or sense of normlessness in urban India, especially among young men, stemming from a sense of insecurity, competition over basic resources, including actual physical space, resulting in extreme reactions to trivial issues, and public violence.”
The lack of downtime and open public spaces adds to what Gurgaon ACP for Crime Hawa Singh calls a pressure-cooker effect.
“We’re multi-tasking and running against deadlines all the time,” says Dr Sameer Malhotra, head of mental health and behavioural sciences at Delhi’s Max Healthcare. “This makes it easier to lose patience if there is a ‘roadblock’ or lack of synchrony. We are also seeing see a lot more dis-control, where impulse and emotion increasingly overrule logic.”
So you have Delhi dentist Dr Pankaj Narang, 40, dragged out of his home and beaten to death with bats last week, after reprimanding two motorcyclists for riding rashly as he walked home with his eight-year-old son.
Three days later, in Madhya Pradesh, Sumit Patel, 25, was tied to the outside of a moving train in his underpants, shamed and beaten by three youngsters for drinking water from their bottle without asking.
A few weeks earlier, ad executive Ritesh Awasthi, 37, was killed in Lucknow because he put his hand on the bonnet of a parked car. After a heated argument with the three men inside, he was shot in the back as he walked away.
The list goes on (see Urban Fight Clubs), though it doesn’t always end in death. Slight provocations — loud music that won’t be turned down, an elbow digging into your side on the local train, a persistent honking — spiral into prolonged arguments, verbal assault, lewd gestures and, if it doesn’t stop there, blows.
The Tinderbox Effect
“As people with social, economic and political power co-exist with families that are deprived of access to economic and social resources, you have conditions in which life is made out to be ‘cheap,” says S Parasuraman, director of Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
Unfortunately, adds Pankaj Joshi, executive director at Mumbai’s Urban Design Research Institute, public violence and crime are not yet recognised as crucial planning indicators in the urban planning process in India.
Residents in Dr Narang’s tony west Delhi neighbourhood, for instance, had been at loggerheads in the past. The gated community in which the doctor lived had blocked the slumdwellers’ direct approach to the nearest Metro station. They now had to take a route that passed through the residential colony, and that’s how the bike-borne men had their first brush with the doctor.
Such disputes over shared infrastructure and limited resources such as space on roads and trains, or access to water and power, have intensified in recent years, as population numbers have risen and planners have failed to keep pace. The result is visible in the increased aggression on the streets, at traffic stops, and on buses and trains.
Urban planning can be a good place to start, but urban planners and sociologists say it is also vital to create more equal opportunities in crucial domains such as education, healthcare and skills development — to enhance employability and social capital, thereby reducing propensity for violence, says Parasuraman.
“Urban violence can also be contained, at least to some extent, if the government, urban planners and civic bodies create space for sports, entertainment and creative activities,” he adds, citing examples of London and European cities like Paris and Amsterdam that have enforced greater vigilance and introduced safety valves in the form of recreational spaces and community centres.
“The key to a better city is to allow communities to steward their own resources,” adds Vyajayanthi Rao, anthropologist and director of New York’s Terreform Center for Advanced Urban Research. Rao’s work focuses on the cultural, social and political implications of spatial transformation and architectural interventions in large cities. “The planner’s role should be pedagogical, providing awareness to different communities of the ways in which their actions affect others and the city as a whole.”
Coming to blows over ‘tu’ instead of ‘aap’
In February, a 30-year-old researcher was beaten to death, allegedly by a fitness instructor following an argument over loud music played inside the gym of his housing society in south Delhi’s Vasant Kunj. In April 2015, electrician Mohammed Shahnawaz, 38, was beaten to death, allegedly by the occupants of a car that rammed his motorcycle in Old Delhi’s Daryaganj. His two school-going children were with him at the time.
“We are seeing a rise in the number of such cases,” says joint commissioner of police Depender Pathak. “Most of the time it is an outburst of latent anger built up over time because of problems at home or at work, money or work pressures, etc. It also stems from the deteriorating standards of living in several parts of the city.”
Pathak adds that the police are noticing more crimes committed among people who later say they had already felt pushed to the brink by struggles over essentials like money, living space, time, food or water. “In a city where there are so many very poor and so many very rich, there is a growing dissatisfaction with one’s standard of living,” Pathak says, “and the smallest trigger or perceived slight instigates such crimes.”
Multicultural Delhi is also prime ground for misunderstandings. “There have been cases where people have started fights because they were addressed as ‘Tu’ instead of ‘Aap’, says Pathak.
Life in super-dense crush mode
Six months ago, on a relatively calm Saturday afternoon, marketing manager Priyanka Dhavan, 30, ended up in a physical brawl with four elderly women on a local train.
“I jumped in before the train came to a halt, because I wanted a seat for my hour-long journey,” she says. The women were standing at the door to alight and began shouting that they would teach her a lesson.
“They tried to push me out but I clung to the pole,” she says. ”So they got off the train and started pulling my clothes. My jacket tore and my finger was hurt.”
Enraged, she stepped off the train and slapped one of them. As the violence escalated, a male colleague had to step in to separate the women. All this happened in seconds and Dhavan boarded the same train. “But I didn’t get a seat,” she says. “What was the point of so much violence?”
Incidentally, nearly 76 lakh people use Mumbai’s local trains daily, leading the suburban railway to coin the term Super-Dense Crush Load — 16 standing passengers per square metre of floor space.
As 825 more vehicles take to the city’s streets every day, the roads are becoming the scene of more escalations too.
Business development officer Rose Paul, 30, was parking her car outside her church on a Sunday morning five months ago, for instance, when she and a man who zoomed into that spot ended up using foul language on each other.
“I asked him nicely first, to vacate the spot. He dismissed me with a rude ‘Find another one’. Annoyed, I muttered, ‘Chu-***a’. He heard and called me a whore and said I must be sleeping with my brother.”
Paul says the incident still disturbs her. “I was shocked — shocked that a man would say such things to a woman, and surprised at how I had behaved. But at the time it was a spontaneous reaction.”
-Riddhi Doshi and Humaira Ansari
A ‘pressure-cooker’ situation
In January, an HR manager was shot in the leg on the Noida-Greater Noida Expressway over a traffic tiff.
Three months earlier, two corporate executives were beaten near a Metro station in Gurgaon over a missing helmet. Four months before that, three men assaulted a traffic policeman after their car hit his motorcycle.
These are only the incidents that have made the headlines.
As urban Indians seek to pack more into their day to keep pace with a world speeding up around them, they are becoming more sensation-seeking, impulsive and alienated. “This sparks risk-taking and aggression hostility,” says Dr Brahmdeep Sindhu, associate professor at the National Brain Research Centre, Manesar.
Hawa Singh, Gurgaon’s assistant commissioner of police for Crime, would agree. “It seems everyone in the city is living in a pressure cooker-like situation, waiting to explode,” he says.
Concerned citizens are now banding together. ”Last year, we launched a month-long ‘Gandhigiri on the roads’ campaign urging motorists to stay calm while driving,” says Harender Bhati of a residents’ group called Active Citizen Team.
-Abhishek Anand and Leena Dhankhar
Kicked, beaten on the street
Traffic awareness and etiquette have hit a low in Ranchi. One reason is the growth in traffic on roads that have not been expanded or increased,” says superintendent of police (Traffic) Manoj Chothe.
Last Sunday, traffic constable Rajendra Mahato, 26, had to be hospitalised after he was punched to the ground and then kicked repeatedly, allegedly by an enraged motorist. Mahato had stopped 28-year-old Jitendra Paharia for driving on the wrong side of the road.
Ranchi RTO (Regional Transport Office) data reveal a 700% increase in the number of vehicles since 2000, while the number of traffic constables is only 300, against a requirement of at least 900.
“Automated signals often don’t work and this takes a toll on the cops and leads to aggression in the motorists,” says a senior traffic police official.
According to RTO records there are about 4.43 lakh vehicles in Ranchi, up from 73,833 in 2000. There has been hardly any increase in total road network.
-Anbwesh Roy Choudhury
Shot dead for leaning on a car
A 37-year-old was shot dead in broad daylight in Lucknow because he put his hand on the bonnet of someone else’s car. Ad agency executive Ritesh Awasthi was supervising the installation of a hoarding in the posh Gomti Nagar area on March 5 when an argument broke out.
Eyewitnesses told the police that Awasthi arrived at the spot with a colleague, Ashwani Mishra, and placed his hand on a car bonnet as they talked. This irked one of the three men in the car.
A verbal duel ensued. As Awasthi was leaving, one of the men took a pistol from his waistband and shot him from behind. He died on the way to hospital. The two men in the car fled, and the third got away by snatching the motorcycle of an onlooker.