January 23: Law student Priyadarshini Mattoo, 24, is found murdered in her Sector B-10 flat, again in Vasant Kunj. Santosh Singh, son of an IPS officer and a lawyer himself, whom she knew well, is arrested and confesses reportedly to having strangled her.
The Sushmita Sensation was its crowning glory, for it was the former Miss Universe's triumph which put Vasant Kunj on the Indian map. A spate of recent murders, however, has transformed the image of this sprawling apartment complex in south-west Delhi to that of the "most dangerous" address in the capital.
Vasant Kunj witnessed eight cases of murder in 1994 in which 11 persons were killed; seven in 1995 with 10 people killed and two murder cases already in January 1996, with six people killed. In all, since 1994, there have been 17 murder incidents (including multiple murders), nine murder attempts, 105 burglaries and thefts, 16 kidnappings and 143 vehicle thefts. Little wonder then that most families, currently occupying some 8,000 of the 12,000-odd DDA flats, are gripped by a fear psychosis. Consequently, the demand for these otherwise prized flats has nose-dived, though it has not yet affected property and rental prices.
"Residents have started feeling very insecure, as though they are at God's mercy," says A.K. Khattar, general secretary, Residents' Welfare Association (RWA) of Sector C-2. Adds Renu Mathur, a housewife who lives a few blocks away from where the Sharma family was murdered: "The murders have shocked everybody, but there are other reasons why we live in acute fear: chain and purse snatching, kidnappings and unchecked movement of hawkers and salesmen."
Long-time residents and property agents, however, claim that Vasant Kunj inspires greater fear in the minds of those living in other colonies than among other residents. "The fear psychosis is not so acute among Vas-ant Kunj residents as among their relatives and friends living elsewhere in Delhi and outside. Paranoid relatives often phone neighbours asking them to check why so and so is not answering his phone," says Wing Cdr (Retd) S.K. Jain, whose family was among the first three to move into the area back in 1986.
Though the asking rates for purchase and rental (Rs 25-50 lakh for buying and Rs 9,000 for renting a three-bedroom flat) have stayed constant, estate agents confirm a drastic drop in demand. Says Surinder Malik of Malik Associates: "I get 70 per cent less inquiries for properties now than before. People are looking at flats in Sarita Vihar and Jasola. Some months back, they would come with cash in hand and demand to be shown any available property. Today callers first enquire about safety. I have to assure them that a particular pocket offers security."
Parveen Oberoi of Lord's Estate and Muk-htiar Ahmed of South Delhi Associates report a 20 to 30 per cent drop in business and are concentrating on other properties. Says Ahmed: "I could not sell a single flat in January and am now focussing on properties in DLF Enclave (Gurgaon)." While Obeori fears that a "few more murders in the near future" could adversely affect prices, another property dealer O.P. Sharma is confident that the slump is just a passing phase.
Interestingly, the police and RWA office-bearers say that residents have only themselves to blame for the murders and say their attitudes will have to change. Says Deputy Commissioner of Police U.N.B. Rao: "All murders in Vasant Kunj have been committed either by servants or by people known to the victims, so it isn't as if killers are striking at random. Further, people refuse to subject their servants to police ver-ification or cooperate during investigations. Ninety per cent of the blame rests on the residents' heads, the police is only marginally to blame."
Says R.S. Yadav, secretary general of the Federation of Vasant Kunj RWAs: "Unfortunately, most residents are very insular and self-centred. A sense of community is lacking and many consider it infra dig to associate with neighbours, even refusing to respond to distress cries. While the present fear psychosis will pass, in the long run people need to cooperate." A little vigilance and some old-fashioned sociability are, in short, the key to living in Vasant Kunj, safely.