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Diversity of people on city streets makes them safer

Increased crime and violence have made people much more fearful to let their children explore the city by themselves or with friends

opinion Updated: Sep 13, 2018 12:34 IST
road safety,kalpana viswanath,street violence
People participate on a Raahgiri Day, an event organised by MCG at Sector 50 in Gurugram, on Sunday, September 9, 2018. (Hindustan Times/HT Photo)

I remember, as a young girl, visiting my grandparents in Chennai during the summer vacations. We used to go out regularly to the nearby store either to run an errand or would walk to the library two streets away to get a book or just play on the streets with children from the neighbourhood. For many of us who grew up in the 70s and the 80s, cycling to school or a friend’s house or walking to the neighbourhood shop, or just walking aimlessly around the neighbourhood with friends was an integral part of our lives. Many of us took the bus to school and other places.

There was an easy relationship with the street and though there was some fear for one’s safety, it did not really prevent us from walking around, sometimes even after dark, at least within the neighbourhood.

Over the past two decades this relationship with the street has changed drastically. Children no longer have such easy access to the streets. The scene from Taare Zameen Par, where the young boy escapes from school and walks the streets of Mumbai is so poignant, yet something which seems impossible today.

Increased crime, violence and fear have made people much more fearful to let their children explore the city by themselves or with friends, without adult supervision. Not only crime, but road safety, accidents, rash driving and poor planning all contribute to city streets becoming spaces to fear rather than enjoy. Ironically, not having children occupy the streets in fact makes the streets less safe. Safety audits demonstrate that when there are a diverse set of people on the streets, they become safer.

The fear of public streets and spaces has come to mean that many urban, especially middle and upper class, children don’t go out on their own at all, sometimes till they complete school. Of course, there are other reasons which affect how children interact with the streets and public spaces – television, computers, smart phones which occupy free time that earlier was used primarily to play. But as a child you learn a lot by being independent and navigating a city on your own or with friends. Taking a bus the first time with a friend or the Metro is an exciting experience.

It is unfortunate that childhood has become more restricted, though some may argue that they can explore the world through the internet and the smart phone. The effect of reduced play time is also a health issue and we see childhood obesity becoming a phenomenon in many middle-class urban families today. While food habits are also responsible, the lack of play has a definite impact. Studies have found that childhood obesity is a bigger problem among the urban affluent.

Children today are taught to not trust strangers, not talk to anyone, not step out alone. While the fear driving this is understandable, it has impoverished childhood. In many instances, fear has become the dominant emotion in our understanding of the city. Our response to shun the streets and public spaces is a short-sighted response. Children and adults, alike, enjoy the streets when given the chance. Just look at the joy and play at a Raahgiri Sunday morning. We need to find ways to once again enjoy the streets and maybe give our children a chance to do the same also.

(Kalpana Viswanath works on issues of women’s safety and rights in cities)

First Published: Sep 13, 2018 12:33 IST