The Delhi gang rape death sentences won't make India safer for women

The government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: how to prevent the crimes?

The fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old student on a bus in New Delhi last December caused global horror and outrage and forced India to step back and examine the ongoing war being waged against its women. Two weeks ago a high court judge passed death sentences on the four men convicted of the rape and murder, thereby appeasing a public majority who bayed for blood, calling for chemical castration and public hanging. Lawyers for the four have since launched an appeal against the sentence which could take weeks or even months, but one thing is for certain: even if they are executed, it will not make India a safer country for women.

For hundreds of thousands of Indian women their struggle begins within the womb. According to UN figures, an estimated 750,000 female foetuses are aborted annually, and even if they do make it past the first gauntlet, they face the threat of infanticide, starvation in favour of male siblings, and are likely to endure a life deprived of freedom, education and equality. For every 1,000 boys under the age of six there are only 914 girls, with some states reporting figures as low as 830. India’s Planning Commission called the gender imbalance “a silent demographic disaster in the making” which is already beginning to manifest itself in the form of increased sexual violence, polyandry – where brothers marry the same woman – and a surge in poorer parents trafficking daughters as brides in areas where the female to male ratio is skewed.

In the days leading up to the sentencing an astonishing level of brutality emerged from the Indian public who demanded stoning, lashings, and castration for the convicts, with even high-profile names calling for the death penalty in order to set a precedent and act as a deterrent against future crimes. While it is easy for us in the West to shake our heads and theorise that brutality can’t be fought with brutality, for most women in this country gang rape isn’t a worry when we step out of our front doors and commute to work. My biggest fear is that the Jubilee line might be down – not that I might end up gang raped and beaten to death on a moving bus.

However, by passing the death sentence, the government has done little more than to satisfy the emotional sense of injustice, and hush up the masses temporarily while shying away from the bigger issue: how to prevent the crimes? Rather than focusing on how to treat the symptoms once they bubble to the surface and burst like ugly boils, the root cause needs to be examined and removed.

India is fundamentally a country permeated with both violent language and a violent mentality. From early childhood, phrases such as “I’ll thrash you”, and “I’ll give you such a tight slap” are commonplace, bandied around by both parents and teachers alike. Few can claim not to have been on the receiving end of physical violence from family members and many who suffer at the hands of violence go on to perform similar acts themselves. Ninety per cent of sexual attackers are known to their victims, dispelling the myth of attackers as evil monsters, far removed from you and me. If the death penalty were invoked more often, India would have to accept that there would be many brothers, fathers, grandfathers, co-workers and neighbours swinging from the gallows. And what then of family honour, so often called into question when a daughter is raped, but not when a son has done the raping.

Society has to set the standards by which it wants to live and what hope does India have when its own lawmakers set a horrifying example? A Reuters report revealed last week that the cabinet has passed an executive order to protect politicians found guilty of crimes, which could allow convicted lawmakers to stay in office and stand in elections. Since India’s last general election in 2009, an estimated 30% of lawmakers had criminal charges against them, which included rape and murder.

To chip away at the patriarchal and misogynistic mentality, education on gender equality has to begin at the grass-roots level, within homes and primary schools, and be reinforced with a strong and sustained anti-violence government-funded campaign on television and in cinemas for those who don’t attend schools. The four convicted in the Delhi rape case were all illiterate and had to sign documents with their thumbprints, but they were probably familiar with the latest Bollywood films whose stars could easily be called upon to back such campaigns. It might seem like trying to empty the sea with a teaspoon, but India has already shown that it is capable of achieving the impossible with targeted education. A polio-eradication programme launched in 1985 seemed a futile venture, attempting to wipe out polio from a country as vast and over-populated as India, but with politicians, activists and volunteers, the country has now been polio-free for over a year.

Ultimately the conversation must continue. Since the Delhi gang rape the discussion over each newly reported rape has subsided faster and faster with social media moving swiftly on to lamenting the fall in the rupee or arguing over India’s foreign film entry to the Oscars, while the everyday rapes, acid attacks, domestic abuse and violence continue quietly in the background.

Members of the Karnataka State Youth Congress, some of them wearing masks of the four convicted rapists, enact a mock execution following the sentencing in New Delhi of four men convicted of rape and murder. Photo:Getty.
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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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