Dread of the night still haunts Delhi, 16 years after Soumya Vishwanathan’s death

- April 28, 2024
| By : Kushan Niyogi |

Lack of police patrolling and streetlights is a major cause for concern at night across Delhi, say the national capital’s female workers

Walking out of her office in a desolate corner of Jasola, Shanti Srivastava (name changed) glanced at her watch, noticing that she had spent 45 minutes extra in the office — the second such instance in the month. 

The clock displayed 11 PM with nothing waiting for her outside, apart from a few drunk men loitering about and a stray dog taking its nightly nap.

“Once an e-rickshaw with three drunk men had stopped which I had to avail since there was no other transport available. He took an unknown route and started asking me personal questions. I didn’t really know what to say since it was the first time something like this was happening but now, instances like these are so frequent that they barely bother me anymore. But the fear still remains. There are security guards in the compound but I mostly see them having dozed off more often than not,” she said. 

Shanti, a 24-year-old media professional, works at an office registered in the DLF Complex in the Southeast District. Overtime and night shifts are more frequent than not, happening at the risk of her safety. There are inadequate streetlights, a lack of police patrols, and a rampancy of drunkards loitering unchecked in front of the commercial building. 

However, hers is not a one-off case. 

In September 2008, Headlines Today journalist, Soumya Vishwanathan found herself in a similar situation as she left the office at around 3 AM, winding up with a breaking news event of the day. 

MURDERED: Soumya Vishwanathan was killed in 2008 after she was stalked by five men

While en route in her car towards her residence in Vasant Kunj, she was stopped by five perpetrators, identified as Ravi Kapoor, Amit Shukla, Baljit Malik, Akshay Kumar and Ajay Sethi, as they proceeded to shoot her and loot her belongings. The former four were apprehended for gunning and looting, while Sethi was charged as an accomplice. 

They were found guilty on all the charges with all of them having to serve life imprisonment. Presently, the Delhi High Court has granted the convicts bail, taking cognisance of the 14 years that they have served. However, Soumya’s mother has put forth a plea in front of the Supreme Court challenging HC’s direction. 

It has been over 15 years since the dreadful tragedy. 

In 2010, a similar incident took place when a BPO employee from Mizoram was raped after the company cab dropped her off near her rented apartment in Moti Bagh. She was intercepted alongside her friend by a dark van in the dead of the night. Her friend was able to escape, however, she was held at gunpoint and pushed to the back of the van.

Following this incident, police authorities issued a set of guidelines and orders, which included the dropping of female employees by company cabs in front of their homes during night hours. Accordingly, night hours were defined as between 8 PM to 7 AM. According to the Factories Act, 1948, a company vehicle should be provided to all night shift female employees, and it should drop them off in front of their residence. 

“We do not get nightly drops at all. We have asked for it many times but it’s always a slight shrug or a ‘wait and see’ approach,” Shanti complained. 

On the other hand, a senior police official at the Jasola area said, “The area around the DLF buildings in Jasola has sufficient patrols undertaken by police personnel. We also have female police personnel patrolling the area as per directions to ensure that no woman has to suffer.”

Out of office 

However, it is not just office-going women who feel the brunt of unsafe spaces in the National Capital Region (NCR). Smita, a 32-year-old woman who has her own momo stall in the middle of Mayur Vihar’s Monday market, has to fend off the feeling of dread every day just because of a lack of safety protocols put in place. 

“The streets here on the main road are all lit up, from here to the chashme waali dukaan (optician’s shop) at Acharya Niketan. However, none of us who work here live on the main road. I live inside Shashi Garden area and sometimes, I only get free after 10:30 at night. Although the main road remains crowded to an extent, the alleys are always filled with junkies and drunkards,” she said. 

The momo seller’s travel to her home marks a significant departure from the lights of Mayur Vihar to the all-engulfing darkness of Shashi Garden’s alleys. 

A group of men wait at a tea stall that has shut shop. They uncork a bottle of liquor and pour it out. 

“One day a man had started following me. I could not do much but run. I called my son up and asked him to wait in front of the house. I ran as fast as I could,” she said, walking along the same road. 

However, Apoorva Gupta, DCP East, highlighted that there are constant surveillance and patrolling units which go for rounds in the area, across the district. 

“We have frequent and scheduled patrolling units which are sent round the clock to each locality. These units function from morning to night. Moreover, we also have anti-snatching picketing units set up across certain areas to maintain safety and security of these localities. Moreover, we have also ensured to organise classes on self-defence for women, as well as senior citizens, to help them guard themselves better, if any untoward situation arises,” said the DCP. 

Former Delhi Commission for Women chief, Swati Maliwal, had taken cognisance of multiple stretches in East Delhi — including Laxmi Nagar and Akshardham, as well as the Nangloi-Najafgarh stretch, for lacking streetlights in December 2023. 

Reportedly, it was found that long stretches of Nelson Mandela Marg — from Vasant Vihar to Vasant Kunj — still remain without streetlights even after the harrowing attack on Soumya. Another report revealed that long stretches of roads from Sachivalaya Road to Raj Ghat, and a 1.2-km stretch on Africa Avenue Road, starting from Sheikh Sarai traffic signal below IIT flyover till the Swami Venkateshwara Marg T-point, were completely dark. 

These areas, referred to as ‘dark spots’, have emerged as a massive problem in the national capital, as highlighted by a senior official with the South East police department. 

“There is no problem when it comes to patrolling and the scheduling of patrols, even at night. However, the lack of streetlights in sufficient areas has led to a rise in snatching cases as well as murders, although the latter is mostly acts of passion. We have sent multiple letters to the agencies concerned like the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Public Works Department (PWD), and others. However, in their tussle, it is the Delhi Police which gets caught in the crossfire,” he said. 

He added that most of the streetlights do not get fixed owing to complications that the said agencies face whenever there are multiple authorities involved.

“It might happen that streetlights on a particular stretch are maintained by the MCD but the footpaths are maintained by the PWD, which in turn, causes immense confusion. This leads to the streetlights never getting fixed, posing a hurdle for us,” the senior official added. 

Sadia Fatima, a 25-year-old finance accountant with an American company at Noida’s Sector 62, highlighted the lack of police patrolling in the area. 

“The situation worsens after crossing Sector 59, and near Sector 18, due to a severe lack of patrolling, making it a hub for snatchers and other criminals looking to make a quick buck. Although my company provides transport, sometimes when I return home with my brother, we have seen snatchers making their way in front of cars to stop them and take whatever they can lay their hands on,” she said. 

Fatima is a resident of Batla House in South East Delhi, and she normally works from 6 PM to 3 AM. 

However, Assistant Commissioner of Delhi Police, Ranjay Athrishya highlighted that there is no lack of police patrols in Delhi. 

“We have sufficient patrols across the national capital and they happen fairly frequently. There is no space which is left untouched by us and we ensure that nobody comes in harm’s way,” he said. 

He also added that most of the crimes that were taking place were being recorded during day-time, as opposed to night-time, including violent crimes. 

“Most crime generally happens during the day because more people are about. At night, crimes generally dwindle,” he said. 

A particular instance was highlighted by a marketing professional in Gurugram, who resides in Delhi. She stated on the condition of anonymity that even evenings have become fairly unsafe around the Delhi-Gurugram border. 

“I noticed that somebody started following me at around 6:30 in the evening. There was nobody around in the Sikanderpur area where I stay, and I had to call my roommate to accompany me,” she said. 

Highlighting the reasons for Delhi Police’s inability to curtail crime in the national capital, former Joint Commissioner of Police, Amod Kanth, said, “The laws that we have are fairly stringent and ensure efficient justice for civilians and vulnerable groups. However, there is a lack of efficient application of the laws on the ground. Delhi Police have much more personnel within their ranks to make for a safer national capital but that does not seem to be the cause. Most of the reason can be attributed to the lack of female personnel within the ranks, with them barely claiming 10% of the total. Moreover, there is also some hesitation when it comes to the registering of cases.”

PROTEST: A woman holds up a poster in Delhi’s Connaught Place questioning women safety in the capital PHOTO: GETTY

He also added that the merging of the women’s and children’s helpline numbers on 112 was a miscalculated step. 

“There was no problem as such when it came to taking action against any crime be it during day time or night. Police personnel mostly need to keep in mind that they have been entrusted to fight crime,” said former Delhi Police Commissioner, SN Shrivastava. 

He also highlighted that personnel usually take cognisance of issues which involve women at the earliest, without delay. 

“When I was the commissioner, the situation was kept in check with daily meetings which were held in the morning, where we took stock of the number of cases which were registered involving women as well as the number of chargesheets which had been filed in the districts. On the other hand, we had devised a complaint monitoring system which would help us highlight the areas where such crimes were most prominent, making the process of exercising law and order easier,” said Shrivastava. 

Presently, according to Delhi Police officials, multiple female staff-led pink booths, constant surveillance and the recent inclusion of women-led police chowkis near educational institutions and commercial areas are expected to prevent such incidents.