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Paint the Town

City activists are painting sidewalks hoping to encourage more street life in Kolkata.
Sandip Roy
City activists are painting sidewalks hoping to encourage more street life in Kolkata.

The other day a friend at an art exhibition in Kolkata asked me “How far is your apartment from here?”
“Not more than 20 minutes walk,” I replied. But then grumbled “Except it’s not easy to walk it because the pavements are so crowded with stalls and vendors.”
But when I read about Kolkata being called the safest city in India for the third consecutive year based on statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau it made me realise that all the things that make it hard for me to make that 20-minute walk in peace probably also help make the city a little safer.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata

Congestion is also about life on the street. There are vendors, people setting up stalls, dismantling stalls, shopping, bargaining or just loitering.


As the shops shut down people set up makeshift kitchens and start cooking meals. Even late at night it rarely feels unsafe.
When I was last in San Francisco downtown with its shuttered department stores and deserted malls felt eerily spooky. I could feel myself walking faster. Once I had enjoyed being able to walk on the sidewalk without Kolkata crowds.

Now they felt a little scary.

Statistics say Kolkata reported 86.5 cases of cognizable offences per 100,000 population in 2022 way below other cities like Pune (280.7) and Hyderabad (299.2). In 2021 that figure was 103.4 for Kolkata. The government tried to claim credit. The opposition said the data was spotty.
But it’s understandable that a city often accused of living off its bygone glory days would seize on this bit of data to feel good about itself.
It’s not all good news for Kolkata. The data also showed the number of crimes against women rose from 1,783 in 2021 to 1,890 in 2022. In that regard Kolkata is behind Chennai and Coimbatore. And these are just cognizable offences. When a woman gets onto a share three-wheeler in Kolkata and reflexively places her bag as a barrier to the man next to her in case he tries to cop a feel that does not get recorded in these statistics. The crowded streets and jostling crowds can make you safer in some ways but also offer cover to pickpockets and perverts.
Nilanjana Bhowmick, author of Lies Our Mothers Told Us who grew up in Kolkata says

NB1: In North India the fear is very real. I remember coming back from somewhere, at 1:00 AM, the car stops, I’m surrounded by all these trucks and I can actually touch my fear.

Kolkata felt safer, a city she had roamed around in as a young woman though she admits it was always in the more genteel areas of the city, areas that already had a lot of other women in it. She did a quick Google survey once on where women feel safe.

NB2: you know, over 44% women said that they have never loitered alone or in a space that was that already didn't have lots of other women in it.

Yet it’s also a fact, as the state government pointed out, that the city celebrated Durga Puja with millions of people on the street, without any major crime being reported.


And some people are realising that gentrification and development do not have to mean sweeping people off the streets. It can also mean encouraging street life.
City activist Mudar Patherya has been getting some pavements in South Kolkata painted in bright colours, paying tribute to local musical celebrities and turning them into venues for al fresco music concerts.
Old-time neighbours who complained about cafe noise otherwise joined in and sang along when there was music on the street.

MP1: So somewhere music is tending to bring neighbors together. The moment you have neighbors together, the neighborhood becomes safer

He hopes it will drum up business of local cafes and that will help homeowners think their properties are worth preserving instead of selling them off to be torn down. The cafe-ization of the neighbourhood could create a monetary incentive to retain the buildings.

MP2: IIf the buildings are retained, you see the same neighbors year after year, decade after decade. There's something called neighborhood bonding. There's something called neighborhood familiarity.

If the buildings are retained then you conserve the neighbourhood. Then you see the same neighbours year after year and that in turns make for a safer neighbourhood.

MP3: This painting project is seen by a lot of people as an aesthetic project and nothing else. It's actually not. It's a heritage conservation project. It's a neighborhood bonding project.

Instead of painting the town, these Kolkatans are trying to paint the city safer.

This is Sandip Roy in Kolkata for KALW