Many Ahmedabadis are dismayed by the realisation that one of the citys ancient and most beloved recreational spots has been usurped and unrecognisably transformed by the local authorities. Kankaria is an artificial lake with an island summer palace created in the fifteenth century and said to have been frequented at one time by the Mughal Emperor Jahangir and Noor Jahan. Located in the south east region of Ahmedabad,it has been a popular venue for picnickers,birdwatchers and casual strollers for centuries. A recent beautification project undertaken by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation under the guidance of the state government at a cost of Rupees 36 crore however has completely altered the character of,and modes of access to,the space.
The construction of fences,walls,and high gates for instance has blocked the passer bys view of the placid waters. Vehicular traffic has been banished from the perimeter but the levy of a fee of ten rupees per adult visitor with additional costs for added attractions has introduced an economic criteria for the enjoyment of the lake. Visually,the serene lake with its mud banks,street-side stalls,ancient steps and monuments has been given a makeover with granite and grey paint. A toy train,named the Atal Express with a faux tunnel,film music,food stalls,commercial signage on the boats and on the island,rides and so on have turned the rambling,disorderly space into a modern,amusement complex.
There would indisputably be a section of citizens which would welcome the newly sanitised Kankaria,but a great number are disturbed by what they perceive as a takeover of a cherished landmark and various forms of protest both Gandhian and modern such as a media campaign are in the planning. The reaction coming after the completion of the project is belated but the issue has implications that go well beyond the local.
The gentrification of leisure spots is a noticeable trend in various towns and cities in recent years. The concept of an entry fee once considered unthinkable has now found widespread acceptability on the grounds that users must share in the maintenance of public space. There has been little discussion however on the modalities of pricing. Who gets to decide how much is appropriate? And how does one safeguard against the possibility of the fee becoming an instrument of deliberate discrimination. Discrimination against the poor,and against other sections of society,since studies show that class is often co-related to community and caste which means that privileging entry to public spaces can also become,intentionally or unintentionally,a subtle form of social engineering.
The issue however is not just about class but also about usage. Public leisure spaces such as parks and beaches were once perceived as mainly recreational in purpose but with changing times,health has become the primary focus (tellingly morning walkers have free entry to Kankaria). The swarming of these spaces all over urban India by middle and upper class joggers has resulted in effective security arrangements and cleaner surroundings. These developments and the emergence of informal associations such as laughing clubs have proved immensely beneficial to previously disadvantaged groups such as senior citizens. For women too,parks have become safer and more welcoming.
At the same time those seeking to enjoy themselves in ways that are less acceptable (but not illegal) or less fashionable seem to have fallen out of favour. A clear example is the efforts by the moral police to control behaviour in public spaces by separating park benches and attacking amorous couples. The conversion of open leisure spaces into concrete,regimented enclaves with specified purposes is another form of authoritarianism.
It is also one with intangible implications. As Professor Neelkanth Chhaya of the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology in Ahmedabad points out,historical monuments and natural features such as seas and mountains are useful in healing the city dwellers anomie by connecting him or her to something larger and beyond the individual or the community. Limiting that connection whether it is through a monetary or an aesthetic intervention therefore has implications for a societys well being.
As our cities grow,the need for spaces for relaxation is bound to grow as well. Public spaces of leisure being a scarce commodity,it is necessary to generate discussion to prevent their becoming zones of exclusion rather than inclusion.
Shah is a Mumbai-based writer