We are surrounded by them in all our suburbs. They are so ubiquitous that we don’t even think of them as a separate urban form. Big, private residential spaces, enclosed by a wall and tall gates, inside which are worlds unto themselves, containing a swimming pool, a club house and tennis court at least, and sometimes, restaurants, golf greens and spas. They have names like Nirvana, Garden City or Laburnum, that evoke luxury and exotic chic. Their ads describe them in florid prose, extolling their closeness to nature, exclusivity and promise of luxury.
Gated communities. The modern-day version of the fortresses that medieval nobility built to keep themselves safe and private. The trend for such dwellings picked up in southern California in the 1960s; these continue to form a major share of the real estate market in the US. But their most remarkable growth has been in countries like Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and, of course, India, where they have proliferated largely because of a lack of confidence in law enforcement.
In India, as the middle class grew more disappointed with the state’s ability to assure personal safety or basic utilities like continuous power supply and clean water, it ran into the waiting arms of property developers, who offered walled residences where everything that the state failed to provide could be bought. A security industry, itself often dubious and ill-equipped, emerged in parallel. A fear of crime and the “outsider” have always been fundamental reasons for people moving into gated communities: But are we any safer here? In the US, when gated communities were growing rapidly in the 1990s, studies showed that the long-term crime rate altered very marginally. Some studies concluded that the crime gets pushed to low income, less secure neighbourhoods. In India too, there are frequent reports in the mass media about criminals who easily breach the porous security of a gated complex.
Eventually, every gated community dweller must engage with the city. A woman living in a complex in Gurgaon still has to go to work, possibly in Delhi. Even if she drives a car, lonely parking lots, possible harassment at traffic signals and the risk of provoking road rage in a driver by daring to overtake him are still a reality. There is only so much running away from the city that you can do because you cannot fortify yourself from the business of living. There are offices and schools to attend, markets to visit, people to meet. To not keep looking over your shoulder — which Indian women are instinctively used to doing — our streets and public transport need to be safe. Outside the gates of the posh complex, the reality of the city bites hard.
In fact, it becomes even more stark because of the wall around the complex. All the action, children in playgrounds, kids playing football, happens within the gates. At some distance is a slum or a village. In-between are streets on which only a few walk, fearful of any passing motorbike, wary of the silence. If the wall wasn’t there, life would be conducted outside. Children would come to a public park to play, homemakers would walk to the neighbourhood market, retired people would stroll on the pavements. There would be more noise, more people out and therefore, greater social surveillance against petty crimes. That’s how it was just about two decades ago when there were no urban islands inviting you to live in “another place, another world”, to quote the taglines of a builder’s advertisement.
The tall gates of the complex are a message to the poor that their world is separate from ours and we wish to safeguard ourselves from the “contamination” they represent. The separation of “us” and “them” is anathema to social harmony and can only foster resentment, laying the basis for more crime. Gated communities may have made rich Indians “feel” more secure — but they haven’t made the streets any safer. That needs a different response altogether from the state. Hiding ourselves in private enclaves cannot be a solution to our unsafe cities.