Thirteen years ago, Mayor Rudy Giuliani started an unexpected miracle that turned a crime-prone New York into one of America’s safest cities. Using a strategy that came to be known as a tipping point, Giuliani cracked down severely on minor offences such as vandalism, fare-dodging, littering. The effects were magical. Violent crime in New York city dropped by 75%, triggering worldwide studies on how small things can make a big difference.
Delhi, India’s crime capital, also needs a tipping point to tame its lawlessness. The crime figures are stunning. Delhi has as many murders as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together. Delhi has four million fewer people than these three cities combined. But it has four times more kidnapping of girls and women—900 reported cases in 2005 compared with 219 in these cities. Delhi is also India’s rape capital. It reported 566 rapes in 2005 while Mumbai reported 201, Chennai, 43, and Kolkata only 13, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.
Delhi’s violence comes from a culture change triggered by the upheaval of Partition. Before 1947, Delhi was an urbane Muslim-culture city of qawaalis. But when India broke up and lakhs of Hindu Punjabi refugees streamed into Delhi from what is now Pakistan, they were filled with hate for a random fate that had made them homeless. Aggression became their chief characteristic, and Delhi’s, too. That aggression blazes on Delhi roads. It intimidates not only foreigners but even outsiders from Mumbai or Bangalore who ask why a honking bus bears down on them from behind on a narrow road. Or why glaring Delhi motorists, spoiling for a fight, weave in and out of traffic, daring others to crash into them.
Hidden eyes can tame them easily. Delhi’s road users routinely cross red lights late at night. Tens of thousands of them can be fined every night by 500 hidden policemen at 500 traffic lights noting down the vehicle numbers of violators. Reckless motorists can be spotted and reported daily by citizen volunteers—judges, doctors, engineers, professors— authorized to note down vehicle numbers on pre-paid, self-addressed post cards issued by the traffic police. The effect could be electric—thousands of violators punished by invisible eyes, and traffic not disrupted. Could this reduce violent crime in Delhi? New York’s experience would say yes. It reported more than 2,000 murders and six lakh serious crimes in 1992. These dropped by two-thirds and half, respectively, within five years when Giuliani cracked down on graffiti, littering and peeing at roadsides.
The need is urgent. Delhi’s lawlessness isn’t limited to violent crime. The lawlessness pervades the city’s psyche. The lawlessness extends to blatant dishonesty. This was best revealed by a bald government answer on bounced cheques issued five years ago. The answer said that out of 13,062 cases of bounced cheques India-wide, Delhi accounted for 5,417. In short, Delhi accounted for 40% of dishonoured cheques with 1.4% of India’s population. Delhi is also the national capital for auto thefts. In 2005, it accounted for twice as many motor vehicle thefts as Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai put together.
Conventional wisdom says crowded living conditions promote crime. Delhi is less than half as crowded as Mumbai, Kolkata or Chennai. Perhaps its high crime rate stems from a north-west frontier culture acquired in 1947. Could a New York tipping point check that? Perhaps yes. What’s the harm in trying?
Arvind Kala is a freelance journalist, which he says is a euphemism for being unemployed. Comment at email@example.com