February 21, 2020
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Mercury Rising

A life on the edge. Too many people, too little time and space. Urban India is suffering from bouts of rage that are translating into serious crime.

Mercury Rising
Sanjoy Ghosh
Mercury Rising
kills child | Teenager attacks parents in Delhi for pocket money | Man drives his Maruti Gypsy into another following argument on the road | Truck driver hits motorist with an iron rod, asks fellow drivers to pin him down and drives over the injured man | Bus driver, parked in the middle of the road, thrashed by firemen | Chandigarh woman beaten to death by servant because she didn’t let him watch TV | Women demolish liquor shop | Crowds burn down three shops protesting against police inaction against murder suspect | Mason kills roommate in Chennai for Rs 30 | 213 lynching cases in Calcutta in 2001 | Tension between residents and fishermen near Marina beach | Tamils burn pro-Kannadiga organisation flag in Bangalore | Kannadigas burn posters of dmk leaders | Shiv Sena threatens to throw out migrants from UP and Bihar | Shiv Sena activists pelt stones at Shopper’s Stop, demanding employment opportunities for Maharashtrians | Man strangles wife for not cooking lunch | Woman creates storm in Mumbai bus, calls conductor "beggar", hits him on the head, calls a passenger "black lizard". Bus and woman go to the police station | Jawan shoots down superior for not granting leave. Takes six colleagues hostage | Water riots in distant Mumbai suburbs | Train passengers

Every working day in Mumbai, most of its 12 million people emerge from homes that are, on an average, 300 sq ft shared by at least five close family members, among whom the newly-weds may have risen from mezzanine adjustments after a brief night's silent sex. They rush out with a dream that in a poignant statistical calculation by the State Government is to own a living space 375 sq ft big. They spill out on the roads that collectively measure less than 1,800 km in length, somewhat shorter than Delhi's 28,000 km.

Many of them live so far away from work that if world marathon record holder Khalid Khannouchi started his 42-km run around the time when they set out, he will reach faster. Enduring decibel levels of about 90, many times higher in intensity than what the human ear was made for, they take various connecting mediums to the nerve centre of all life out here. The railway station. Monstrous groups of men and women stand looking in one direction, ready to push, shove and hit people they don't know in the middle of deep-throated yells, to get into a train that during peak hours carry 4,000 passengers while it was designed for 1,700. They are teachers, salesmen, executives, students, prostitutes, bank employees, journalists, secretaries, bookies. The entire Mumbai economy. Between nine and eleven in the morning, over one lakh passengers have gone somewhere in these trains. In each compartment, some 400 people stand with not an inch to move, looking down or up in a space that by Indian law is not permitted to hold more than 80 animals.

ATTITUDE, "North Indian aggression", no respect for traffic or other rules, people drunk on power

Are they getting angry? For a milder answer, one should board the famous Virar fast train and try to get off at Bandra. Usually, the attempt will fail. Luck is about failing without getting slapped or dishonoured. Verbal abuse comes free with the Bandra ticket in such trains. There are men, some female commuters allege, who are consumed by such bitterness against women who are rumoured to travel in great comfort in their reserved First Class compartments, that when they get a slim chance, they urinate there and scribble obscenities. The women in turn, according to Shilpa Phadke, a researcher working on Gender and Public Space, "travel in fury". They too have no space to move during peak hours. To make matters worse, young schoolboys, who are defined as safe by naíve law but in truth are lush tubes of spilling hormones, travel in the "Ladies", brushing against everything. In this condition, the women violently guard their First Class, sometimes throwing out blind beggars and singing children who only need alms. They also evict poorly-dressed women who clearly cannot afford the elite fare with a pointed "this is a special compartment". In the last train back home around midnight, there are women who chop vegetables in their seats for the immediate future, before they become victims or perpetrators of domestic rage.

By the time the trains lie dead in the stillness of the night, 48 migrant families from all parts of the country have already arrived in the city that day searching for jobs, food and shelter to further annoy Shiv Sena's Raj Thackeray who has clearly said there may be a violent movement to "pick them up and throw them out", especially if they are from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. A few days ago, Sena activists pelted stones at Shoppers' Stop, demanding more employment for Maharashtrians. And Mumbai is not the worst case in India. It may be the best. It remains, in general perception, the most endearing among the giant cities of India today.

SPACE, Cubbyhole homes, insanely overcrowded trains, population rising by 48 families per day

There are 35 cities in India that have a population of over a million. A pathetic quality of life, a persistent march towards what some academics call "wealth generation", and stark rich-poor juxtaposition are making some 300 million people in these big centres, more than the entire population of the United States, vulnerable to what is called urban rage.These are bouts of indiscretion and desperation that are increasingly becoming criminal in content. Last year in Delhi, a mother mutilated her child's genitals in anger. A few weeks ago, a truck driver hit a motorist on the head following an argument, threw him on the road and drove the truck over the man who was pinned down for this purpose by other truck drivers.

In Calcutta, 40 to 50 private buses are burnt every year by angry mobs. In Chennai, a 50-year old mason was killed by his 65-year old roommate for not repaying Rs 30. In Chandigarh, a woman was bludgeoned to death by her servant because she didn't let him watch TV. He later rushed to the top floor of the house, picked up his master's .38 bore revolver and shot himself in the head. When Mumbai-based senior journalist V.Gangadhar objected to an Arya Samaj congregation playing blaring music around midnight, he was kicked and even threatened to be burnt alive. On May 24, a Central Industrial Security Force (CISF) jawan, 22-year old Ram Namdeo walked up to his Deputy Commandant in Mumbai's international airport and shot him dead. According to him, he was not granted leave and was treated inhumanly by his superior.He took six colleagues hostage that night. His demand was to speak to the media. After about seven hours, he was persuaded to surrender.

"What he did was understandable," says his mother Umadevi Namdeo, sitting on the floor of her 250 sq ft one-room-kitchen home in Chembur. Her husband and a young handicapped daughter share the floor. "He used to come home every day very tense. He wanted to get his sister married. So he wanted leave. Why can't the boy be given leave? He was so severely verbally abused by his superior that he couldn't sleep on many nights." His father shows a packet of Mortein rat poison. "He has been having bits and pieces of this for a long time," he says. Namdeo wrote film scripts whenever he found time. According to his mother, once he even managed to meet Sunny Deol and narrate a story to him. In the eyes of some of his colleagues whom Outlook spoke to, "he was warm and friendly".

Very close to Namdeo's home is the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS). The head of Urban Studies here, professor R.N. Sharma connects Namdeo's crime with a certain insidious way in which a big city gets to its people. "Tough living conditions have serious consequences. People have to be happy to be normal at all times." He holds general bad life responsible for the inhumanly huddled passengers in Mumbai's local trains finding refuge in what he calls masti (fun). There have been instances when boys have hurled abuses from the trains at women living along the tracks".It may have been in retaliation to some encroachers who used to pelt stones at passing trains".

There are other new dangers in the city that are not simple tangible missiles. In a place where even educated middle class homes add on new members through marriage in their one-room arrangements, Shilpa Phadke observes, "there are families where there are more than two new couples. They take turns on the mezzanine floor". This is one reason why dance bars, where splendidly dressed girls show intimacy in uninterrupted space, are becoming a favoured parking place for many men. Pramod Naik from an organisation called Men Against Violence and Abuse feels addiction to such bars is in some cases responsible for domestic violence. "Dance bars make these men happier than going back to a crowded home. This leads to tension," he says.

KANNADA-TAMIL DIVIDE, The Cauvery water dispute,
the high 20 per cent Tamil population in the city

Space is not the problem in Delhi. Just people. A certain "classic north Indian anger, Aryan predisposition to rage promoted by preconceived notions that men have to raise their hands, abuse and fight for their rights," in the words of psychiatrist Dr Jitendra Nagpal.It's a huge city of vast class differences, of localities that get over 540 litres of water per person per day and regions that get around 10, of homes that are bigger than 2,000 sq m, and smaller than 13, of people who take 15 minutes to go to work and those who take four hours. But contrary to popular belief, the most shocking crimes here are not committed by the bitter poor.Delhi's problem is not bad life. It's attitude. "No one here likes to smile at a neighbour," says traffic chief Maxwell Pereira.

In the national capital, where there is a type of people about whom a former airhostesses says, "if something goes wrong they will threaten you even high up in the sky—'I know the minister'", a wrong move, a wrong word can mean death. "There is a certain class in Delhi," says Amod Kanth, the investigating officer in the famous Jessica Lal murder case, "who are drunk on power and they do things without thinking about the consequences." Ravi Chaudhary, a businessman, got into an argument with a skating instructor Jagral Singh after their cars scraped. Singh then rammed his Maruti Gypsy into Chaudhary and dragged him over a distance. Chaudhary's wife and two sons aged 8 and 3 stood on the road and screamed for help which didn't come for a long time. He died the next morning. But some pleasant things do happen in rage. A Blueline bus driver may get beaten up. Ajay Agrawal, a lawyer, was travelling in his car from India Gate to Siri Fort when his path was blocked by a Blueline bus parked "typically eight feet from the pavement," he remembers. "What was worse was that there was another Blueline driver who wanted to chat and had stopped his bus in the middle of the road. We honked, other cars joined in but the buses wouldn't budge. A fire engine on duty came along ringing its siren, still no movement. What happened next was amazing. The fire engine driver hauled the Blueline driver out of the bus, hopped into the driver's seat and drove it to the side of the road, while the remaining firemen punched the driver into pulp. After which they hopped back onto the fire engine and drove on. "I was stunned by their efficiency and effectiveness". Civic sense was fed the hard way.

But usually in Delhi, it's difficult to recount tales of road rage in good humour. The general stress of city life too is telling on teenagers. According to a study, in 6 out of 10 teenagers who were tested for stress related disorder, anger was a factor. "We are looking at a volcanic eruption," warns Dr Nagpal, "unless we find ways of changing the way we think and live".

ANGER AT THE SYSTEM, Failure of state services, disappointment with the law and order machinery

Even in placid Bangalore, where the weather has made it the Information Technology capital despite an embarrassing power situation, there are frequent eruptions today that are destroying the city's rumoured peace. In the 6.5 million-strong city where every person gets an average of 105 litres of water per day against a modest national average of 150, Cauvery water is an issue that will not die very soon. The politicisation of the river water in both Karnataka and Tamil Nadu has pitted local Kannadigas against Tamils who form 20 per cent of the city's population. In May, a religious procession taken out by Tamils was followed by the burning of a pro-Kannadiga organisation's flag by some miscreants. A few days later, about 1,000 Kannada loyalists returned the favour by burning posters of local dmk leaders. The concourse became increasingly violent as the Tamilians then burnt a representative mascot of "Kannada Virodigalu" (foes of Kannada). Politicians on both sides are milking the water rage.

Politicians and governments have been loathed for long in India but there was never really a violent struggle against the impotent system. That's changing. In Chandigarh, rated as one of the best cities to live in, an angry mob set fire to three shops in protest against police inaction.A youth in the locality was killed but the accused were still in the free world. In May, furious women demolished a liquor shop on the Chandigarh-Mohali border blaming alcohol for all domestic evils. Says Shanti Devi, one of the agitators: "The government is unable to provide us drinking water but seems all too eager to provide liquor." Calcutta has a tradition of people taking matters in their own hands. Since they know that murderous bus drivers will be protected by politicians and powerful unions, they resort to quick punishments like burning government property or lynching the guilty. Lynching in Calcutta has risen from 136 cases in 1996 to 213 in 2001. Lack of faith in the police is a reason given by authorities themselves to explain this.

So far, urban rage in India against what is humourously called "the welfare state" is ephemeral. A nation that has never seen a truly bloody revolution may not get one soon. Despite increasing tremors, intelligence officials and sociologists concur, masses will not take to the streets for one decisive outing and bag forever a life worth living.

Manu Joseph with Pramila N. Phatarphekar in Delhi, Ashis K. Biswas in Calcutta, S. Anand in Chennai, B.R. Srikanth in Bangalore and Chander Suta Dogra in Chandigarh
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