Walled in

Gautam Bhatia | Updated on April 17, 2014

Fists of rage: Jantar Mantar has witnessed anti-corruption protests as well as pension parishads. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Dousing political fires: Water cannons attempt to quell the angry voices raised against the fuel price hikes at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. Photo: S. Subramanium

Do we have a Tahrir Square, Taksim Square or a Zuccotti Park? On the eve of Republic Day, we examine the idea of public space and why it is constricted, even non-existent, in India

From Vietnam War protests on the Washington Mall to Tiananmen Square in China, and the more recent Tahrir Square marches in Egypt, in public protest around the world one thing was common: all cities provided space for protest, maybe not designated as such, but the public square in the centre of town was space available, as it always has been, for art, culture, social life, commerce, and most of all, public grievance.

Urban visibility provided focus to the seriousness of the protest. When the million man march descended on Washington, the great flank of museums and memorials enclosed the protesters in a momentous public display of popular strength. The numbers were all that were needed to make the point. With the Lincoln Memorial as the stage and the Tidal Basin as the public enclosure, the cameras captured a historic moment, viewed around the world. The eloquence of Martin Luther King’s I have a Dream speech was all the more heartfelt when it resounded against the backdrop of such urban monumentality.

Other anti-capitalist, national, gay, feminist, Islamic, anti-colonial, anti-establishment movements have also appeared in recognisable public city space. Urban governments abroad have long since realised the importance of the symbolic public space in the city. Tahrir Square was the epicentre of the Egyptian uprising of 2011 that overthrew Hosni Mubarak and paved the way for a new government. Certainly the space of the square was a flash point of violence that killed almost 900 people, but the publicity of the event — however catastrophic — was visible for all to see. At Tiananmen in Beijing the 1989 student protests were made more public by the sheer scale of the square itself. As sociologist Duncan Hughes noted, “There was no place to hide. For once, the Chinese government’s atrocities lay exposed to the rest of the world.”

Indian public space, by contrast is constricted or non-existent. The absence of squares in the centre of Indian cities makes all forms of public protest secondary and insignificant. While older cities in Rajasthan and elsewhere made clear public markers through street chowks  and maidans, newer cities make no distinctions between places for protest, sport recreation, parks, baghs or maidans. The public is free to choose its own use for any available public space. The Prime Minister speaks at the Red Fort, Arvind Kejriwal conducts his Dharna at Rail Bhavan, Ramlila is performed at the maidan, minor protests are staged at Jantar Mantar, marches at India Gate. The open park becomes a cricket pitch, the sidewalk an invitation to commerce, the larger paved plazas are parking lots. The uncertainty of public designation makes every form of Indian city space into a free for all.

Some years ago I was part of a small crowd of about 200 protesters at the candle light vigil at India Gate to demonstrate against the Indian explosion of the nuclear bomb. We were however clearly outnumbered by families who had come to the park for an evening stroll, an ice cream and some illicit love making. In a city so completely lacking of urban space, India Gate had become the hub of all activity — social, political, commercial — in the truly Indian aspect of turning any public event into a mela. What then really distinguishes India Gate from Pragati Maidan, Pragati Maidan from Dilli Haat, Dilli Haat from Connaught Place?

The lack of visible structures to public life in the city ensures that its citizens remain entirely free of the norms of collective living. The absence of walkable ground, usable sidewalks, public libraries, street culture, places for meeting or congregation (except for marriage halls) and other activities of co-operative intent makes the city into a mere assortment of private houses and self protecting fearful gated communities. Tyres will be deflated, driver will be shot… So you learn to see the world beyond the boundary wall of your home as wasted place, its people and sights a proverbial enemy. You navigate the city as you would a dangerous battle ground, not as individuals occupying collective space but as families, usurping family compounds, filling restaurants and malls, an urban sub-species so self-absorbed, it is incapable of existing outside the family. Or as disjointed gangs playing by gang rules, threatening women, intimidating and terrorising as you move through the streets.

The park opposite my home has an 18 point list of Dos and Don’ts at the entrance, among them: No washing of clothes in Park, No eatables allowed, No bathing, No entry for pets. But at any given time of the day, plastic wrappers litter the ground, while stray dogs sniff food leftovers. Men bathe, while local women wash clothes at the hand pump. Rich people walk their dogs even when the sign forbids them. The need to institutionalise public behaviour and graphically display it on a board is the inevitable necessity of a culture that has little regard for public space, and scant interest in preserving anything outside the domestic domain. That public space belongs to everyone is a strangely western notion; that it must be preserved and paid for, is equally, an un-Indian idea.

City for no one

The current dangers of rape, molestation, robberies, water wars, electricity pilferage, deflated tyres, road rage, private gates on public streets, high boundary walls, and electrified fences are all the unfortunate byproduct of an urban culture of growing insularity. A fear that whispers into private ears: protect yourself and your turf. In the past decade the commercialisation of India has itself ensured that public life in the city is confined to malls and restaurants. Even the tree-lined street in residential neighbourhoods has been replaced by glassed-in shops for Bvlgari, Revlon and Rolex, making a clear and unequivocal statement that if you have nothing to buy and nothing to sell, there is no place for you in the city.

In cities that are increasingly being designed by builders, for outrageous private profit, the worst is yet to come. Every Malibu Towne and Beverly Heights being built as extensions to the old city is turning inwards to its own private merits — home, shopping, recreation, pool, and community within the high wall — without ever needing the outside, without the ugly face of the real city. So, you sit alone, connected only on social media, in a ghostly buzz, living in cyberspace, a place at once inviting and menacing, the blue screen always flickering... Your social relevance is measured by the number of followers, the number of tweets, and the number of friends on Facebook. You learn to revel in the false seduction of social connection, in the excess of information and the promise of its senseless performance. You learn to wallow in private occasions, knowing full well the absence of a real view out of your window: the public opportunity that accidentally brings people together and makes cities livable, lovable and human. Perhaps it is time to rethink the city as an extension of home, and bring back — in real physical form — the long forgotten ideal of public space. The city as the family living room.

(Gautam Bhatia is an award-winning Delhi-based architect and author.)

Published on January 25, 2014

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