May 25, 2020
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Do Cities Import Crime?

The prejudice against migrants is rampant. Even PC nurses it.

Do Cities Import Crime?
Illustration by Sorit
Do Cities Import Crime?

In the capital of migrants, crime and loose tongues that is Delhi, it wasn’t unusual that Union home minister P. Chidambaram made the lazy connection that migrants are responsible for the city’s rising crime graph. After all, chief minister Sheila Dikshit has also done that before—only to recant when it was met with outrage, the way Chidambaram eventually did. That leaders at Chidambaram’s and Sheila’s level could be so simplistic about complex issues like migration and crime in big cities is symptomatic of deep-rooted biases against migrants. And the particular disgust and scorn reserved for those from the villages of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar acquires all the more poignance in a city where most residents are in fact migrants—either of the first, second, third or fourth generation, depending on the cut-off year.

To put things in statistical perspective, the population of Delhi in 1901, according to the British census of the subcontinent, was four lakh. At India’s average population growth rate of 1.6 per cent, it should have risen, by 2001, to no more than 20 lakh. But the actual 2001 figure was about 1.38 crore. This could be taken to mean that today, migrants constitute more than six times those who might be called descendants of Delhi’s ‘original’ inhabitants—without entering into controversy by referring to nativity, domicile or year of arrival.

The first flush of migrants came to Delhi in the wake of Partition, after which some 11 lakh refugees from Pakistan, mostly Punjabis, were rehabilitated in the capital. Over the decades, arrivals from Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand outnumbered the Punjabis. This completely changed the political landscape of the city, nullifying to a great extent the BJP’s base in the Punjabi refugee population. Delhi’s projected population for 2011 is 1.8 crore, of which 65-70 lakh would be from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh and 20-25 lakh from Uttarakhand.

Politicians ill-informed about India’s realities tend to parrot the prejudices of the police and the bureaucracy. Correlating the high crime rates in east and northwest Delhi to the high proportion of migrants living in cloistered settlements in those areas is one thing. There may be genuine sociological clues here, ones that should impel the hard work of better policing and community initiatives in those parts. But it’s entirely another matter—one that ignores the complex dynamics of crime—to simply blame migrants. Chidambaram took that easy line after the recent abduction and gang-rape of a girl from the Mongolpuri area in north-west Delhi. Sheila made a similar connection between migrants and crime in 2008. Perhaps the two Congress politicians did not realise they were calumnising their own voters.

Where they also failed is in not acknowledging that the more affluent south and central Delhi are better policed than other parts, surely because they have more influential residents. Hence the lower rates of certain types of crime—robbery, molestation, rape. They also ignored the possibility that in these parts there might be proportionately more white-collar crime, in which perpetrators often draw immunity from their influence, their ability to hire better lawyers and to pay bribes. Police or political collusion in this is quite active: sundry police officers and lower-rung politicians, for instance, are known to have behaved like property hustlers. And when upper-middle-class or rich brats indulge in some drunken boisterousness, police officers are quite apt to turn into indulgent uncles.

The prejudice police officers, politicians and bureaucrats bear against migrants is belied by their own statistics: of all the criminals caught in Delhi this year, 83 per cent were born and brought up here. And since more than 80 per cent of Dilliwallahs have their roots elsewhere, a more appropriate usage would be to refer only to first-time arrivals as migrants. So, by those distinctions, Delhi’s crimes are actually to be blamed on ‘proper Dilliwalahs’, not first-time arrivals.

Unfortunately, the establishments in many cities use the same blame-the-migrant logic. This is dangerous, considering that close to 30 per cent of India’s population migrates to the cities every year. But what are the roots of this bias? Read the answer in what Chidambaram said: “These migrants who settle in unauthorised colonies carry a kind of behaviour that is unacceptable in any modern city, so crimes do take place.” The jhuggi-jhopri clusters he refers to are home to the poorest of poor, driven from subsistence livelihoods in the hinterlands by the rich and powerful, who see them as sitting atop precious resources. In the cities, it’s again the rich and powerful who seek to uproot them, regarding their slums as eyesores or precious real estate.

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