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The horrific riots in Delhi last week raise an important question: are economics and demographics responsible? Jafrabad and Chandbagh, which witnessed the greatest violence, are home to a significant population of young men. These are also relatively poorer areas of Delhi.

A Mint analysis of district-level National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data suggests that there is no strong link between demographics and riots nationally. There is no link between poverty and riots either.

In the case of most districts, the police districts in the country are the same as the administrative districts. In other cases, either police (NCRB) districts have been combined to match a census district (Tirupati and Chittoor in Andhra Pradesh have been combined as Chittoor, for instance) or census districts have been combined to match a large police district (Mumbai and Mumbai Suburban districts have been clubbed together to map it onto the Greater Mumbai police district, for instance) for this analysis.

In 2017-18, riots in India, depending on the measure used, were concentrated in parts of Kerala, Haryana, Bihar, Tripura, and the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, the analysis shows.

To capture all rioting-related offences across India, the NCRB compiles data broadly categorized as offences against public tranquillity. This includes not just rioting as defined by the Indian Penal Code (IPC) but other forms of agitation such as unlawful assembly and promoting enmity among groups. Since state police forces may not be consistent in defining riots, this overall figure remains the best measure of rioting-related offences in India. In 2018, the latest year for which data is available, there were 76,851 such offences across India - a slight decrease from the previous year. When adjusting for a population (based on population projections), this works out to 5.7 riot offences per 100,000 people.

At the district-level, though, riot rates vary significantly. To account for annual volatility, we calculate the average riot rate for 2017 and 2018 (riot data from earlier years are not comparable). During 2017-18, the average riot rate was the highest in Nagapattinam in Tamil Nadu (68 riots per 100,000 people) and Shopian in Kashmir(41).

27 districts, largely in the North-East, had no cases of riots registered during these two years. At the state-level, Kerala (20.4) and Haryana (12.8) had the highest average riots rates while Punjab and Mizoram had the lowest riot rates.

Average riot rates, though, could simply reflect better reporting of crimes. Some states tend to have higher rates for all crimes simply because their state police forces are more proactive when registering cases.

One way to adjust for this is to examine the number of riots as a share of all crimes registered in a district. A higher share of riots would suggest that riots are a more common occurrence. Using this measure, the pattern changes slightly.

States with higher average riot rates tend to also have a greater share of riots. But the inter-state differences are less stark if we apply this measure to examine the intensity of riots. In Kerala, for instance, 3.3% of all crimes in 2017-18 were riot-related offences. This was above the all-India average (2.6%) but below that of Tripura (6.7%), Jammu and Kashmir (6.3%), and Bihar (6.3%).

Source: NCRB
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Source: NCRB

One commonly held perception is that poor and young men are most prone to violence. North East Delhi, where the riots happened, is the poorest of the districts in Delhi (according to the multi-dimensional poverty index). It has the greatest proportion of young men and the highest share of Muslims among all Delhi districts.

It is unclear to what extent these factors contributed to last week’s riots. But at the national level these factors do not appear to have any link with rioting. Across districts, riots do not seem to be associated with greater poverty or younger male populations (share of 18-35 year-olds).

It is worth remembering that some of India’s deadliest riots in recent memory have occurred in the more prosperous parts of India. For instance, in 2017, relatively prosperous Chandigarh was the site of large-scale rioting, when protests broke out against the conviction of Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh.

The 1984 riots of Delhi, the 1992-93 riots of Mumbai, the 2002 riots of Gujarat all point to the easy coexistence of affluence and rioting. Even the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 took place in a relatively prosperous belt (Western Uttar Pradesh) of India’s most populous state.

India’s history and the district-level evidence both suggest that economic prosperity may not always work as an effective antidote to violence.

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