There is a case to be made for the spaces of democracy and the democracy of spaces. The former is where democracy is played out and the latter allows the practice of what is equitable, universal and free. Recent photos of the Hong Kong protest showed interesting sights of how protesters had innovatively used everyday objects from the street to create barricades against the police. Bamboo-poles-like tripods had kept police away from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Metal grey fences on sidewalks were dismantled as defence (and, yes, vandalism, too), opening up sidewalks and traffic jams. These protesters had managed to turn the tables on what the government often uses as means of control in public spaces.
Across India, too, protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens have led to newer public spaces, be it within the narrow streets of Shaheen Bagh, universities across the country, maidans and railways stations. What it has given people is a place of counter-power, and reaffirmed what democracy is — for the people, by the people, of the people.
However, if we were to look closely, that sense of power to the people has been diminishing over the years. With the shrinking of public access, coinciding with the rise of neoliberalism, has come the mushrooming of land that is owned by private entities that secure that space with their own security guards and reserve the rights to admission. It’s happening within our own localities and reaffirming a false notion of security. Other instances include shopping malls and state-of-the-art commercial complexes.
“It all started more than 30 years ago when the first group of housing projects began in Delhi, where the Delhi Development Authority built residences on specific sites and enclosed them behind walls,” says architect-urban planner Ranjit Sabikhi. His latest book Sense of Space: The Crisis of Urban Design in India (HarperCollins India, 2019) dwells on the VIP culture in the capital. “Post-independence, when the government housing came up everywhere, be it Lodhi Estate or Kaka Nagar, you could walk across the colonies. The Kidwai Nagar block of residences allowed you to walk from South Extension market through the colony to INA Market. In some pockets of RK Puram, you can find shortcuts through the colonies. However, the recent redevelopment of government housing has led to high walls and guarded entrances,” says Sabikhi.
The appropriation of a public children’s park into the National War Memorial is another case in point. Even as the public-ness of India Gate shrinks and as a city we hold our breath, barricades all around the central hexagon is an indication of what is to come. The sense of place that a chowk or a maidan or a park gives reinforces one’s ownership of the city or town. Compressing that will not only frustrate those who live in 250-sq-ft homes and come to these public spaces for recreation, but will also impact the action for the common good. If it hasn’t already happened, we have become a country of walls and barricades — telling people we want only a certain kind to live in the city.
There is hope, though, as Italo Calvino states about Berenice, the unjust city in Invisible Cities (1972). That within “the double sheath of the unjust and just Berenices… there is secretly germinating a just city, and this is the possible awakening — as if in an excited opening of windows — of a later love for justice, not yet subjected to rules, capable of reassembling a city still more just than it was before it became the vessel of injustice”. The Aravalli Diversity Park and the Kochi Muziris Biennale are examples of such windows in our urbanscape.