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Shaheen Bagh 'verdict': Public space and public realm in the light of peoples’ protest

By Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava*
The Supreme Court on February 17, 2020, while hearing a plea against Shaheen Bagh road blockade, made an interesting observation cum interrogation saying that democracy works on expression of views but there are lines and boundaries and that people (protesters) cannot block public road indefinitely and create inconvenience for others; further adding that the "question is where can they demonstrate" .
Some days ago, the apex court had said that protest must be done in an area identified for agitations and cannot be done on a public road or park. As an architect-urban designer-planner (and as a citizen if I may wish to protest), I’m keen to know where are such public spaces in our cities especially at the neighborhood levels for people to protest if the public roads and/or parks are excluded from the definition of the public realms?
Keeping the Apex Court’s discretion to neglect the purpose of the protest out of the discussion here, I like to draw the attention of the court, the police and the local urban development authorities to the very idea of Public Space and Public Realm in the light of Peoples’ Protest in Planned Cities/ Towns of India.
City level public spaces like Azad Maidan of Mumbai, Dharna Chowk of Hyderabad, Park Circus Maidan of Kolkata, Ghanta Ghar Chowk of Lucknow, Ramlila Maidan of Delhi, etc. are extremely important and have been used for various events including protests from time to time. However, for prolonged public gatherings like the one at Shaheen Bagh and the alike across the country, the nature of public space is very much now and here thing and thus requires neighborhood level public spaces for peoples’ gatherings.
It is important to acknowledge and accept that our towns and cities are insufficiently provided with the public spaces and public realms for peoples’ expressions of all kinds. It is important that we appreciate the multiplicity of functions of the public spaces particularly if they transcend the uses more by the peoples than by the automobiles.
UNESCO defines a public space as an area/ place that is open and accessible to all peoples, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, age or socio-economic level. These are public gathering spaces such as plazas, squares and parks as well as connecting spaces such as sidewalks and streets.
The ‘everyday spaces’ that are used by people to socialize, play, work, shop, traverse and use for activities such as exercise, enable social processes among the local and other people. The publicness of the spaces called the public realm is the physical manifestation of community interaction is at the core of making of cities.
A city requires a hierarchy of public space system from cluster to community to neighborhood to city and to regional level public spaces. The URDPFI (Urban and Regional Development Plans Formulation and Implementation) Guidelines of the Ministry of Urban Development of the Government of India (2014) declares that 10-12 square meters of open space per person is desirable in the cities.
The hierarchy for organised open spaces shall include parks, play fields and other spaces like specified park, amusement park, maidan, multipurpose open space, botanical garden and zoological parks, traffic parks etc. The guidelines suggest 3-4 local parks and playgrounds at housing cluster level and neighbourhood levels besides 2-3 community level park and open spaces.
The guidelines also suggest that 0.50 hectare of open space be provided in every 5,000 population of housing park; 1.00 hectare of open space be provided in every 15,000 population of neighbourhood park; and 5.00 hectares of open space be provided in every 1 lakh population of community park.
While the guidelines talk about the open spaces to be spatially distributed and multiple function in time to be promoted, it broadly touches upon the definition and function of open spaces merely for recreation. Somehow the idea of multi-functionality of public spaces is blurred in the policy and its manifestation can be seen affecting the peoples’ perception of public realm.
In other words, if a public space is continuously occupied by automobiles or encroachments, it must be seen in the same light of inconvenience as the protest is being seen. Also, if the public spaces like parks and playgrounds are not allowed for people to congregate for protest, then it is a discriminatory outlook on the purpose of use of the public spaces. A public space is as much for play, party and parking as it is for protest. This needs to be accepted by the people and the political establishments with the same logic.
The publicness of the spaces called the public realm is the physical manifestation of community interaction is at the core of making of cities
We the People of India request the Supreme Court that the available public spaces cannot be stereotyped with the types of usage, and that the public realm must be respected for multiplicity of expression of both celebration as well as concern.
And if the apex court is directing people to protest in areas identified for agitations, the directive must be taken seriously by the local urban development authorities and architects/ planners for the lack of provision of such spaces at the housing/ neighborhood/ community levels. It is no exaggeration that planning of the cities have happened using populations gross number rather than the peoples’ gamut of needs.
The city planning has not catered to the set guidelines of the public spaces at housing/neighborhood/ community levels and obviously the aggregate level of public space provisions in the cities need to be relooked especially if the function of the public spaces need to be limited to or barred from certain type of activities.
Having one or two large or dedicated public spaces for political expressions isn’t enough in large cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Lucknow, etc. Then several of the public spaces in the cities get used as parking lots. The apex court must also consider them to be a matter of inconvenience. Several of the parks and playground are waiting upgradation causing more inconvenience to the needs of the local people.
Further, if the playgrounds, parks, riverfronts, other social-cultural spaces are for recreation only, then wonder where do people express resistance. And then if they are not allowed to be used for protest, the people are pushed to be on the roads to protest. Not to forget that roads are the first order public spaces.
We shall remind ourselves that people are standing on the pan-chai shops at every nook and corner of the cities and spending hours there. Isn’t that causing problems to commute? Then there are official and unofficial encroachments in the public realms. They too cause a lot of problems to commute. The apex court may like to take note of them too as cause of roadblocks.
Should we like to move from the governmental approach to the governance approach where local  peoples’ needs are met with, the neighborhood public spaces as mediums/ manifestations of public realms and activities like the Shaheen Bagh challenge the local urban development authorities, police, architects and planners to rethink about the planning and designing of cities in particular the provision, the distribution, the design and the maintenance of the public spaces at housing/ neighborhood/ community and city levels.
And if the Supreme Court is not coming out strong on the increasing number of automobiles on the roads and the parking lots that continue to cause inconvenience to the pedestrians, it is unfortunately showing either bias about looking at the public spaces and the public realms or is ignorant of these facts of planning, designing and building of cities and public spaces.
It is important that the honorable Supreme Court takes note that public spaces are meant to be multi-functional and are equally eligible for expressing concerns as for celebrations. Further, making the public space provision discriminative in nature may tarnish the very public realm of the society which the court has agreed upon in principle that people have the right to protest.
So, the matter ‘where to protest?’ is more a provision problem and such spaces are to be ensured by the local development authority and the local police must be taking responsibility to ensure safety of the people in the designated public spaces.
Pedestrians have the first right on the public spaces and since protesters fall in the pedestrian category, they are simply exercising the right to be in the public realm to engage in social-cultural-political interactions and activities.
If the people are reclaiming the public spaces from the automobiles, it is philosophically to be considered cities are reclaimed by the people from the mechanization. A reason certainly worth celebrating in terms of public spaces, public realms and people. At least this is what we learn and teach at architecture, urban design and planning disciplines that cities are for people and public spaces including the roads are to be pedestrianized to its most possible level.
On February 22, as has been reported, the roadblock at Shaheen Bagh is now relieved. The roadblock and smooth traffic flow are overrated by the petitioner, and unfortunately endorsed by the Supreme Court. In this analogy, then all political campaigns on the roadsides, all festivals on the roadsides, all processions, all cricket matches create roadblocks and create hindrance to the traffic flow.
For that matter, with every important minister passing by, the roads are blocked every now and then. If Shaheen Bagh is happening, the local police and the local urban development authorities can rework on the local transportation plan as they do in the other events and in the continuously happening road construction activities in various parts of the cities.
The women of Shaheen Bagh and other places in the country are sitting for constructive matters of the country’s conscience and therefore their concerns need to be heard with the same rigor as the petitions of the roadblock is heard and judged by the apex court. Also, because the petitioners are mostly men and the protesters are presumably mostly women, it is unfair to suppress the expression of the latter in a democracy in true spirit.
The apex court needs to go past the gender bias in asserting the use of public space by ‘x’ peoples as in case of the current protests being dominated by women such as at Shaheen Bagh.
Protest, in true sense, is becoming a manifestation of reclamation of the public spaces by the people, for the people, of the people
When every nook and corner of the roads and streets in India are occupied by pan and chai walas that are mostly flocked by the men for hours every day which are also important reasons to create inconvenience to the locality in terms of not only traffic but in terms of littering and trolling/ teasing the girls/ women passersby. The apex court is yet to go strong on stopping of the pan/ chai shops and flocking of men around them creating a lot of inconvenience to the women of the cities.
In the end, I request the Supreme Court to acknowledge and appreciate the reclamation of public space by the people more than by the automobiles. I also request the apex court to take out time to hear the peoples voices who sat through the scorching cold and now the heat, especially if the apex court could hear the sirens/ horns of the people sitting in the cars and having some inconvenience to commute.
Protest, in true sense, is becoming a manifestation of reclamation of the public spaces by the people, for the people, of the people. I’ve a simple question to the Supreme Court to conclude:
“If in an city like Ahmedabad that has18x2 Kilometers of public space in the form of Sabarmati River(Lake)front, yet few people who wish to protest do not get a space there to do so and then they have no choice than to sit on protest in a private (Ajith) Mill compound in Rakhiyal or the roadside of IIM Ahemdabad or Gandhi Ashram, with great pain I want to why can’t people use that huge public space made with that huge cost? Is that only for seeing and not using? Is that only for the Ministers/ Elites to use?”
I urge the Supreme Court to take cognizance of the fact that politicians with unsecular and unconstitutional ideologies are blocking the growth of the country and that is more important to be addressed by the court than a few hundred meters of roadblock in a thousands of kilometers of roads in the city of Delhi. So please be the Court We the People Know you for and Trust you for.
---
*Entrepreneur, researcher, educator and a close political observer; interested in learning and sharing about the sustainability and livability of the built environment

Comments

The best writeup I have read on the space dynamics of protest at Shaheen Bagh so far. Very meticulously, you've analysed point by point, the rationale of reclamining public space for dissent to mainstream the culture and reason of protest.

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