India's Pistol-Packing Mamas

India's abysmal crime record is a reflection of matters turning from bad to worse in the form of a fast-spreading gun culture, with women legally arming themselves for protection.

The high-growth hubs around the national capital region of New Delhi including Gurgaon, Ghaziabad, Noida and Greater Noida, home to some of the country's highest-profile multinationals, software and outsourcing firms, are the flashpoints, with discontent brewing among those not part of the growth story that is being experienced by a migrant populace driving swanky cars, housed in state-of-the-art high rises and spending prolifically on their lifestyles.

Although Delhi has been dubbed the crime rate of the country, the capital itself has experienced an actual fall in the crime rate due to intensive policing. Rape, robbery, riots and other crimes fell by 13 percent although murders increased sharply, from 467 cases in 2007 to 518 in 2008. The surrounding area that makes up the national capital region, however, is a different story.

The services-oriented industries in Gurgaon and Noida hire large numbers of women in the work force who are prey to crime. Gurgaon registered the highest number of armed robberies in Haryana state – 155 in 2007 and 183 in 2008, with the consequence that the Gurgaon administration has awarded over 2, 000 gun licenses in a short period. Noida registered 170 armed lootings between September 1, 2008 and January 31, 2009, averaging a case per day.

Indian citizens can own and carry guns provided they obtain a permit under the country's Central Arms Act. Some citizens complain that the gun ownership law is overly restrictive, requiring a background check from the local police, who often don't grant them. Others are growing increasingly alarmed at what they regard as a spreading gun culture that is finding its outlet in senseless violence.

In the last quarter of 2008, for instance, a young media professional was shot to death as she drove home from her office in Delhi, in what appeared to be a case of road rage. In January, the owner of a call center shot at two creditors when he was unable to pay a loan installment from them. There have been at least two road rage incidents last month in Noida that have resulted in shooting deaths.

Given rampant car-jackings and daylight robberies, the new townships and immigrant work population are being forced to ensure their personal safety rather than depend on the police, who say rapid industrialization which has ushered in new prosperity and economic disparity is generating the crime.

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Police sources say that in the badlands of the national capital region, weapons manufacture is a cottage industry sustained by the ever-increasing gun culture, with an illegal and flourishing arms selling business. Officials say that the situation is such that ‘if you know the right source then procurement of weapons from the black market is fairly easy'.

A Webley & Scott revolver with a real price of Rs 200,000 can be obtained for Rs 15,000 on the sly, a country-made revolver costs Rs. 250 to Rs 1500 and an authentic AK-47 can be bought for Rs.75,000, though with some difficulty, police say.

The illegal arms manufacturing industry also supplies organized crime syndicates in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand as well as neighboring countries such as Nepal and Bangladesh. Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, with the highest crime rates, lead in the number of weapons licenses issued. Bihar holds the distinction of having nearly 1500 legal gun shops, the maximum of any state in India.

Authorities have asked residents to fence in vacant plots and resident welfare associations to encircle the complexes with grilled fences and establish private check points at exits/entries. Efforts have been made to crack down on the illegal and excessive usage of guns. To this end the National Security Act is being implemented under which those accused face strict bail conditions. Quick bail means that criminals not only get back to crimes but also threaten, bribe or kill witnesses. The authorities have also requested for fast track courts.

Clearly, this is not enough for skittish residents. Meerut, a commercial city that feeds Delhi, has more than 7, 000 gun license applications in process. There are more than 40 million legitimate gun licenses in the country.

Officials say women applicants for gun licenses cut across all sections, primarily because of fear of attack and the unreliability of lawful policing. Official statistics reveal a significant increase since 2006, in the number of applications and procurement of gun licenses by women in the western region of Uttar Pradesh that adjoins the Delhi-NCR belt. On an average at least 1 application is being received daily by the police from women. A senior Meerut police official has been quoted about more and more women applying for gun licenses for personal safety.

Anuradha Steve, a resident of Gurgaon, complains that the growing gun culture and possession and manufacture of illegal arms, inadequate policing, exposed neighborhoods, unplanned growth and emergence of the nouveau rich as targets, add to the palpable sense of insecurity. Thus, the land of the mother goddess Kali/Shakti is witnessing the emergence of gun-toting women.

Priyanka Bhardwaj is a journalist based in New Delhi. She can be reached at priyanka2508@yahoo.co.in