Want to make your city safer? Don’t be a passive bystander!

What do you do when you see an accident victim on the street, unconscious and bleeding? Or when the young girl opposite you in the bus is being evidently harassed? Can you, as a bystander, intervene and help?

As wintry Bangalore closed in on her, Sheila (name changed) began to plan her daughter’s marriage. But her husband, from whom she had escaped after 20 years of a violent, abusive marriage in Pune, threatened to descend on her and kill both her as well as their daughter. In fear, Sheila almost called off the marriage, but it was a nearby doctor (who wishes to remain anonymous) who helped to stop her.

“Don’t cow down. Connect with me, with your neighbours, with the SHO of the nearby police station and be prepared to fight your husband with all of us when he comes,” advised the doctor. Sheila was scared, but the bystander improved her confidence so much that she actually ticked off her husband when he called next. It surprised and strengthened her that he really backed off.

What saved Sheila then? Just one bystander’s intervention. Not with resources or gifts, or laws, but just with some empowering words that pulled her out of stress. The collective strength that supported her made her fight when she had to, explains the doctor.

Horrible incidents and indifferent bystanders

The value of the bystander, then, cannot be undermined. But do they generally support victims? Strangely, that has always been the dilemma they have carried – to help or not to help! Few onlookers really step forward to pitch in.

In August, 2017, a 35-year-old accident victim lay bleeding for 12 hours on a highway near Delhi, with no one coming forward to help him. In fact, a few thieves stopped by to pilfer his wallet and watch!

In the broad October daylight last year, a woman was raped in a crowded marketplace in Vishakhapatnam. A rickshaw-puller nearby just filmed the episode, capturing the horrific tragedy and also the paralysed bystanders – none of whom came to help her or even call the cops.

In September, 2016, a 21-year-old was stabbed 22 times in a residential area in North Delhi. The tragedy can be seen on CCTV, reflecting not only the horror of the crime, but the total lack of involvement of the crowds.

How can anyone be a bystander, rather than an active participant, when they witness a fellow citizen in distress? Just a small intervention can go a long way in putting things right. For instance, 1.5 lakh Indians die in road crashes annually. 50% of them die of treatable injuries. 75,000 lives can be saved if people step forward, according to Jaagore. The Law Commission of India states that 50% of road accident fatalities can be prevented with public involvement.

The Bystander Effect

This appalling sense of apathy among onlookers has actually been given a name. It is called the ‘Bystander Effect’, which refers to the indifference of observers, when a horrific incident plays out just four feet from them, and they do not summon the courage to either stop it or inform an authority.

But are onlookers really indifferent to tragic events?

Surprisingly, they are not. A number of bystanders in the Vishakhapatnam rape case acknowledge that they felt a sense of outrage, but were also gripped by utter fear and helplessness when they watched the woman getting mauled on the road. One rickshaw puller captured the tragedy on camera and called the authorities.

Still, why the paralysis?

Dr Shaibya Saldanha, counsellor and co-founder of Enfold, an NGO that works towards child safety and gender empowerment, hastens to add that inherently, when there is a crowd, people do feel for each other and want to help. However, it poses a threat, because if you are entering a space that is abusive, you are exposing yourself to it too. Many people might fear for themselves or their lives when they become a part of the events, explains Dr Saldanha.

There are various kinds of harassment that people witness all the time. The most common types happen in buses, public places, institutions and neighbourhood colonies.  People are cruelly exposed to sexual harassment of women and children, bullying, murders, road accidents, physical and even verbal abuse. They claim that they feel outraged, angry and devastated.

“It’s inertia that takes hold of a person when he or she is faced with a tragedy,” says Dr Saldanha.

There are in fact various reasons that hold people back and prevent them from coming forward to help or raise a voice, depending on the situation. SaveLIFE Foundation, a non-profit committed to improving road safety and emergency medical care across India, explains that 74% of bystanders during road accidents do not help the victim, whether they are alone or with others. 88% are put off by the fear of court appearances, repeated questioning and legal issues. And 77% say that hospitals tend to harass them and do not treat accident victims if the fees is not paid upon admitting a patient.

Apart from fear, the onlookers also feel a “diffusion” of responsibility in the middle of a large crowd, as well as a detachment from the scene. As it doesn’t affect them at a personal level, a bystander has the ability to choose between lunging forward or staying away. Just having a choice tends to keep them locked in their personal comfort zone.

After all, if the outrage is distributed among many, then it just reduces one’s own obligation and involvement. Studies show that if just one person witnesses an event, it makes him step forward to help. However, when three to four people are involved, it paves the way to ‘Bystander apathy’, according to Jaagore.

Bystander intervention

So, should an onlooker always step in? How can we move towards making every individual more empathetic and active?

Bystander Intervention (BI) is important, according to Dr Divya Kannan, a Clinical Psychologist, Bengaluru. She makes a very important point as she outlines the violence prevention strategy that equips a community with the information to help people in  distress.

BI is not about putting yourself in harm’s way or facing an aggressor, but just intervening even if you keep yourself “safe and comfortable”. 

As Dr Divya Kannan says, her own safety is always priority. In a bar, she found a girl who seemed to be very uncomfortable sitting with a friend. But when Divya went up to the manager to escalate the situation, so that the girl could leave if she wanted to, she was careful to also play it safe.

There just doesn’t seem to be any zero tolerance to abuse in the country, say experts. An abuser, after all, stands out not because of the smaller vindictiveness, but only the bigger ones. Smaller, trivial abuses, which are probably “partial” or “almost” abusive are the worrying issues. If not tackled on time, they could just escalate. So the goal, according to Bengaluru-based film production company, Curley Street, is: “Don’t do nothing.”

Last September, the group brought out a series of YouTube videos showing how it is possible to intervene, when and why. Here are a few examples of BI outlined by Curley Street: when a girl in a short dress in a Metro is stared at, another man comes forward to stand before her. When another girl is stalked, a couple walking nearby just falls in step with her, forcing the harasser to move away.

Intervene without compromising on safety

The three D’s of BI include ‘direct’, ‘distract’ and ‘delegate’ in order to open up ways of intervening, according to Curley Street.

Firstly, as a bystander, you could get involved directly in an incident, if you find that it is possible and doable, without too much danger to yourself. For instance, if you spot a girl getting harassed in a bus, you can just try the direct approach, ticking off the violator if it’s not too risky for you.

However, if the harasser is particularly aggressive, you can just ‘distract’ him immediately, if you have to. Just walk up to a harasser to ask for directions to some place, for instance. That would be a ploy to divert him to a totally irrelevant point.

Otherwise, you could call attention away from others and direct it towards yourself. For instance, if you find a man in a public space exposing himself obscenely, just draw everyone’s attention to it, so that he is forced to stop such objectionable action and is taken to task.

Thirdly, if you find that the harassment is something that you cannot deal with yourself, you need to get hold of an authority with power. For instance, if you feel that the offender is a powerful person and none of the above strategies would work, you could pick up the phone and contact the police or higher authorities to initiate action against him.

Role of children

In western societies, BI among children is more common, as they are conditioned to assess and intervene in events without putting their own lives at risk. In India, the concept is relatively new and yet to really take off in a significant way. However, there is a fledgling movement underway that talks of teaching children the importance of intervening as bystanders.

While children trust and expect onlookers to intervene, teaching them the value of interfering directly, and having them believe that bullying is morally wrong and should be actively resisted, is effective. It also enhances their perception of their own role and capability, according to a local teacher. Taking weekly classes has helped her understand that all the children need is tutoring and guidance.

The Good Samaritan Law in India

In the final analysis, there is not much awareness or even interest in BI in India at present. Most eyewitnesses are harassed and tortured by offenders, so most do not even step forward. In fact, this is most evident in the case of road accidents and disasters, where the statistics is heavily skewed towards bystander apathy, primarily due to fear of harassment by police and hospital authorities.

What can the government do to pull onlookers into the loop?

In view of the prevailing trends, SaveLIFEFoundation filed a PIL in 2012, seeking legal protection, respect and security for bystanders who stepped forward to help road accident victims.

The Good Samaritan Act was passed by a Supreme Court order on March 4, 2016, according to which becoming an active bystander becomes much easier, and it would be contempt of court to not comply with its rules. Apart from that, Good Samaritans would be treated with respect, need not reveal their personal details and can leave as soon as their interrogation is over, or even if they do not wish to be a witness.

In case a bystander does agree to be an eye-witness, the interrogation will be conducted with respect, at a time and place of the volunteer’s choice. She can give her witness in an affidavit. And if she is required to come to the police station, the examination will be “reasonable and time-bound” without any delay.

The law is applicable pan India, but Karnataka was the first and perhaps the only state to make the Good Samaritan Act a state law. Delhi’s AAP government has also made a provision to pay Rs 2,000 to a bystander who steps forward to help an accident victim.

In fact, there has been a decline of 3% in road accidents in 2017 from the previous year, though this might not be directly due to the Good Samaritan Law, but better managerial practices. 

Creating an aware society

Since the gruesome Nirbhaya killing, in which indifferent bystanders escalated the enormity of the tragedy, the Bystander Intervention syndrome seems to have grabbed public interest. A lot of protests, marches, sloganeering, sit-ins and public media exposure has certainly brought out a fury in the bystander that is visible everywhere, though nothing has been recorded.

Karuna Nundy, Supreme Court advocate, points out that some public awareness has been created but it is still not enough. What is needed is a “holistic, education-based approach that can help to create an environment where sexual violence is prevented,” she says.

The sensitisation of the bystander is thus an important part of the current set up. Along with stringent laws, a better, safer and healthier environment can be ensured if the bystander decides to be an active stakeholder in the solution, rather than a passive witness. 

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