The Rich Are The Encroachers On Public Space In the Era Of So Called Reforms

Photo Credit – DNA/(Noshir Gobhai)

The Maharashtra government is back to its policy of privatizing open public spaces in Mumbai. Ordinary people are the losers because of this policy declared on July 27. . The upper class is not bothered because it has created its own spaces for recreation when it is not grabbing public space.

I got a glimpse recently when I attended a children’s birthday party in a space that was like a public park in terms of facilities but was air-conditioned with fee of Rs 500 per child for just two hours.

Apparently, it was not even quite safe for the kids as there were announcements all over that the management will not be responsible for any injury and parents had to give an undertaking in this regard.

Besides, the exclusiveness promoted here is not good for the kids as well as it would hamper their social adjustment abilities. And quite troubling was the game of firing volleys through equipment modeled on machine guns. Look at it in the context of the systematic promotion of violence by the children’s entertainment industry and the arms manufacturers in the West which need to inculcate that mindset.

This was in an entertainment complex in Andheri with a multiplex and other facilities. But just outside on the busy Link Road there was squalor all around complete with an open sewer with heaps of rubbish.

Children are now being robbed of playing space in the compounds of their buildings as the space is completely taken over for motor car parking making it into a dead, impersonal space. We can now say it is even a dangerous space considering the recent reported murder of a boy at party of children from high profile families in a posh part of Kolkata last week.

The boy was left bleeding in the car park after a booze session. Such insensitivity and suppression of evidence. Could this have happened if children had been playing around and this had remained a social space ? I think this also conveyes a kind of change the 25th anniversary of the so called reforms has brought about.

It is necessary to question the rulers’ unjust land policies and misconceived ideas of city development and beautification.

For example, we could do without the art gallery at the Dhobi Talao subway proposed by Mr Aditya Thackeray, the Yuva Sena chief. He is being slavishly projected by the media, by the way. It would be much better to concentrate on how to reduce the ugliness creeping all over the city. Look around the new building of the Bombay Art Society at Bandra Reclamation. It is rather ugly by itself. But next to it is a very shabby wall of tin sheds built around the ground which Mr Sunil Gavaskar has failed to develop all these years.

As John Ruskin declared long ago, a clean sewer is far nobler than the most beautiful painting of Madonna. The Thackerays need to note this in particular because the ugliest sewers flow near their house. It is easy to find the slum dwellers as a scapegoat. But there are more serious problems there. Our political parties and administrators need to learn from the experience of 19th century London. It was full of stench and filth. Then the drainage was improved systematically and things began to change. Charles Dickens, the most prominent writer of the era, was obsessed with sanitary reforms and addressed meetings in support of cleanliness.

There is something seriously wrong with our sense of aesthetics. I walked recently from the Bombay Art Society to the nearby Bandra Reclamation promenade. It was a short walk but the area was full of squalor. And there is no point in blaming the slum dwellers. It was as if the civic body does not exist here. Apparently, no cleaning is done here. There is also a dirty nullah, so we do have yet anotherl sewer here ., the sort Ruskin talks about.

Then there is a tunnel to the promenade ,beneath the road leading to the sealink. It was dark and depressing, it was a problem to walk through the slush. Later in the night it could also be unsafe. And how can they prevent the repetition of a rape that took place here some time ago which shook the city ?

As you come out of the tunnel,one sees letters in a large plastic figure – I love Mumbai. How incongruous. We all love the city but if you give us a city like this, it only alienates us.

It is not surprising so few people visit the promenade. This is an artificial space, created as an afterthought, a device to enliven what would be a monotonous carriageway for motor vehicles, a deadening site anywhere in the world, though our rulers think it symbolizes progress.

Public spaces have to be integrated with other areas, especially residential areas. This is a stand alone space.

And then see how an area which could be lovely space is turned into an utterly dead space. And the culprit here is the Bombay Gymkhana which instead of enhancing the aesthetics of the area around it is spoiling it. One wrong is compounded by another. The municipal corporation has closed down, literally locked the gate to Azad Maidan from near the BMC head office. So one is barred from walking into the Maidan which is supposed to be the most public of spaces as its name symbolizes.

So one has to take a detour and walk along Waudby Road , now Hajarimal Somani Marg along the Bombay Gymkhana. The trouble is the Gymkhana has completely barricaded its compound blocking the view of pedestrians. So what could be a pleasant walk with a fine view of the greenery of the Maidan is turned into a tiresome exercise. Deutsche Bank on the left of this road as one walks towards Cross Maidan would have more reason to fence its compound since it would seem to require more security than the club. But this is a beautiful Tata building and a blank wall would completely have spoilt the charm. Same with a 19th century church on this road and Esplanade House.

The exclusiveness , exclusion practiced by the club is utterly repugnant to democratic values and the concept of inclusive cities. We can leave it at that. But what right does the club have to block the view of the common people to the ground even when the members enjoy the view of the wide expanse of the lawn and the maidan sitting in their comfortable colonial era chairs ? And this when they are occupying government land so cheap, besides grabbing the footpath space outside for car parking .
Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the Era of Climate Change. Walking, Cycling, Public Transport Need Priority

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