CHENNAI: Most cities in India have earned the reputation of being notoriously unsafe for women, but Chennai has consistently been on top of the safety index. Mercer’s 21st annual Quality of Living survey 2019 shows that in the 105th place, Chennai ranks as Southern Asia’s safest city. Warm and welcoming, the city has become home to many communities that moved here in the hope of opportunities, but more importantly — safety. Has Chennai lived up to its title of safe city? CE peeks into the lives of people who found a second home here.
“When compared to a city like Noida where I used to live, people are not so regressive here,” says Joonak Konwar from Assam who moved to Chennai in 2017. “From unknown faces helping me out in times of dire need to what not...majority of the city has won my heart. Even language and cultural differences haven’t caused any unpleasant situations. But the elements which are a threat to society are mushrooming in Chennai too, and we need to fight against it.” Recently, Konwar was riding pillion when a biker touched her thighs and zipped past, leaving her completely shaken.
Even Sabita* from Unnao, Uttar Pradesh, says she has been at the receiving end of some unpleasant advances and stares. “There have been some instances of safety concerns. But, I’ve always managed to beat the perpetrator up,” she says. “The public has always stepped up to help during times of distress. During one such instance, I even took the offender to the police and got him arrested. Unlike Unnao, the police here have been cooperative and helpful..”
From Unnao to Chennai, from fear to freedom, Sabita feels Chennai hasn’t clipped her wings like her hometown. “Here, I can go out at 12.30 am or even past that. But back home, it is unimaginable. You are usually seen as someone who’s doing something ‘wrong’. My parents were uncertain of me surviving and adapting in a south Indian city. But now, everyone seems to have warmed up to the city,” she says.
Both Konwar and Sabita attribute their safety to police efficiency. Receptive, cooperative, complaints taken seriously, and regular police patrols have convinced them to stay here for long. For Shekar Mehta*, an IT professional who was born and raised in Noida, coming to Chennai was a huge change.
“I come from a city where people are hot-headed. You never know when the other person will lose their temper and in a fit of rage, what they might end up doing. The first thing I noticed when I came here is that people are calm. They mind their own business. It took a while to get used to. And a place where people don’t interfere in your business is a place that is peaceful and safe to live in.”
Sometimes his neighbours did give him the occasional disapproving glance when they saw him bringing friends over or a few alcohol bottles lying outside. “But I can manage that. It is the violence and being constantly on your guard because you don’t know if the other person could have a lathi, knife or gun that gets to me. I don’t face that here,” he says.
The issue of safety cuts across classes. Sunita, a construction worker at a site in the suburbs, agrees that it was the lack of outright violence that struck her first when she moved to Chennai.“I stay in a small village on the outskirts of Gorakhpur. I have witnessed some of the most horrific things. People get into the ugliest of fights, husbands beat their wives in public and no one steps in to help. I thought that was how the world was. I then got married to someone from the same village, but he is a very kind man. I was lucky. As a construction worker, he used to travel all over the country for work,” she says. Seven years back, when he was travelling to Chennai, he asked Sunita to accompany him and help out with work to make ends meet. “That was my first time out of Gorakhpur. I didn’t know people could be so nice and friendly, despite not knowing the language. I feel so independent and happy here. I always look forward to working here and pray that we get more work here,” she says.But, not all have felt welcomed. Several other workers voiced the discrimination they face for being ‘outsiders’.
“I can sense the hostility when I step on site,” says Bittu Kumar who hails from UP. “Locals feel we are a threat to their livelihood. At the workers’ camp, fights break out on and off. They keep taunting us for being unclean. It is not a welcoming place for us at all. They scowl when we speak Hindi. I am waiting to go back home. .”
While the city does score better than most others on the safety index, there are issues that it must look inward to make the next 380 years a more glorious run.
*Names changed on request.