A child is crushed to death as a car tries to reverse into a garage on a narrow lane. Very important people, some of them alleged criminals, speed smoothly down the road, beacons flashing and sirens wailing, ignoring the Supreme Court’s attempts to restrict such ‘protection’ by the State. These are two distinct scenarios that could happen simultaneously in two, very different, kinds of street in an Indian metropolis. In fact, the death of the child happened in Calcutta on Saturday, allegedly because of careless driving by a young student. The indiscriminate use of beacons and sirens is familiar to anyone living in India, and has been brought to the court’s notice recently. Yet, the two scenarios show how neglect, corruption and the abuse of power create unjust, occasionally tragic, and largely avoidable inequalities of ‘protection’ in Indian public spaces, depending on who is in, and who outside, a car. It is not a coincidence that the careless driver, in this case, was a chartered accountant’s daughter who often took the car to the university to attend classes, sometimes driving it herself, while the child was an electrician’s son, walking back home from school to a slum with his father. It is usually the homeless sleeping on the streets who are run over by private cars when such ‘accidents’ happen, as they often do in Indian cities.
The difference between being inside a car, and outside, could be one of life and death in a country where everything — from driving lessons and licences to official lists of whose car is entitled to security on the roads — depends on a citizen’s position on (or off) a spectrum of power sanctioned by the State and endorsed by society. A city’s streets, lanes and other public spaces thus become theatres of the making and breaking of laws in which ordinary people, and those who are more as well as less than ordinary, are continually involved — to their own advantage or peril.