Upper Class, Politicians and the Loss Of Public Space



All media focus currently is on whether the BJP or the Shiv Sena will have its Mayor in Mumbai following a hung house after the recent civic election.

Real issues usually remain buried, unexplored. Look at the neglect of public spaces despite the increasingly poisonous air .

Mumbai city’s deterioration can be understood in the context of the concern expressed exactly 60 years ago in 1957. A state government study group, headed by S.G.Barve, IAS official, pointed out the serious scarcity of public spaces in the city.

Since then no remedial action has been taken and the situation has worsened and spaces have become more scarce for ordinary people. The development city plan of 1964 had suggested a central enactment on the lines of London for development and maintenance of public parks.It too had expressed serious concern over dwindling public spaces.

Over the years the politicians and bureaucrats and the upper class have failed the city in several ways.

Look at what is happening to Joggers Park in Bandra which has become an important landmark in Mumbai.

Dilip Kumar, the celebrated actor, has expressed his wholehearted support to the demand that Joggers Park, Mumbai’s iconic park on the seaside in Bandra, Mumbai, should not be taken over by the municipal corporation.

He and Saira Banu, his actor wife, used to often walk in the park after regular hours.

A letter written by Saira Banu in this connection was read out at a meeting held in Joggers Park recently.

The Joggers Park case is significant for various reasons in the context of issues like who should manage Mumbai’s scarce public spaces and the need to stop further depletion of such spaces. It is also significant in the context of the current political situation arising in Mumbai with the civic election results because we are witnessing greater, marginalization, exclusion of the poor in civic life.

The campaign for the park also shows the distrust of a section of the upper class of municipal management of parks and how much more articulate this class is in asserting its privileges.

Actually, it is the poor who are far worse affected but they have remained mute and have found very little media attention. A vast majority of Joggers Park walkers are very affluent and they are up in arms merely on the issue of who would run the park. Imagine the furore if Joggers was taken over and converted into a dump yard for machinery.

But the authorities have done precisely that, they have brazenly taken over the prime Sane Guruji Udyan public garden and the adjoining Nardulla Tank Maidan ground near Siddhi Vinayak temple in Prabhadevi. These have been fenced off and will be closed for several years now. To add to the injury, a board put up by the Metro rail authorities tells the resident..` to bear with us for a bright future for Mumbai’. Also, what an affront to the memory of Sane Guruji, the highly revered writer of Gandhian simplicity. It is this kind of deprivation that perhaps contributed to the vote against the BJP in the civic elections.

The affluent , unlike the poor, are very protective of their own space . This is clear from the bitter fight put up by the Bombay Gymkhana, the icon of a century of privilege and exclusivity, in the face of attempts to take over a part of its land for road widening. And this is not its own land, it is government land leased to the club. Not only that the club for years asserted its right to park members’ cars on the footpath outside until it was obliged by the government to give up that claimed privilege.

The club members were portrayed as victims of bureaucratic interference in an editorial in the Times of India with the heading Clubbed into Submission. True, the bureaucracy can be faulted for claiming a share of privilege of exclusive membership but the media has seldom questioned the extremely unequal and unjust land distribution in Mumbai.

The government is now robbing people of public parks like the Sane Guruji Udyan because its own condemnable policy has resulted in a serious crisis of land availability for public projects. Over the years the government has given away valuable public land to dubious organizations and builders. It gave a bonanza to builders and mill owners in dealing with the vacant land after the closure of textile mills in the city. It robbed the city of acres of land that would have accrued to the city for public facilities.

Joggers Park is unique in that it was created by three builders, Lokhandwala, Raheja and Rizvi nearly 30 years ago from a barren but public land. It was run efficiently by the Lokhandwala Trust and charged an entry fee of Rs 2, which is lower than Rs 5 charged by some other privately managed parks.
Now, the Trust does not want to run the park and the civic body took it over from February 1 which seems fair enough and this means entry is free for all. Now, nearly 10,000 people have joined a signature campaign against a civic take-over.Several of them want to ensure that a fee is charged suggesting a heavy bias against the poor. The usual refrain is that `riff raff” will come in and spoil the park if the park is free. Actually, this thinking is not only anti-poor it is also highly illogical. The civic body runs several parks free and quite efficiently including the famous Kamala Nehru Park atop Malabar Hill which is visited by thousands with trips of large contingents of students from schools. Few of these have any trace of vandalisam by the poor.

The campaign that things will deteriorate with civic take over have not been justified. The park now looks greener, brighter, it is spruced up, railings and the gate were painted in the last one week.

The fear that the poor will use the latrines with free entry is also not borne out.The problem is that the rich are indifferent to the toilet needs of common people as also recreation spaces for them. So, there is not a single toilet all along the promenades at Carter Road and Band Stand on either side of Joggers Park stretching over about 3 km. In fact, there is none right upto Bandra railway station from Band Stand and Khar Danda. Besides, the affluent have various avenues for their fun, what will the poor do if even public spaces are denied to them. They need these spaces more since their houses are small, congested, often with little light and air. Historically public parks have played a major role in the struggle for democratic rights.

In some ways India is nearly 150 years behind England in terms of democracy. There were mass protests in England in 1866 when the authorities locked Hyde Park for a day to prevent thousands of people assembling there to demand the right to vote. People broke the barricades and the upper class was shaken.

John Stuart Mill, the noted exponent of liberty, strongly criticized in Parliament the locking of the most public of spaces.

But in Mumbai the gate of Azad Maidan on the side of the headquarters of the municipal corporation is literally under lock and key for several years now to prevent protesters or pedestrians. And this is just a little distance away from Bombay Gymkhana. Unfortunately, neither the elites like the ones at the Gymkhana nor the bureaucracy nor politicians in Mumbai seem to care enough about access to public spaces even when they are so desperate to protect their turf. In fact, some people are actively robbing citizens of public spaces.

Nothing can beat the take over of the municipal Vallabhbhai stadium by the neighbouring National Sports Club of India at Worli and converting it into an elite site of consumption for the rich. Lot of public memories are associated with the stadium. There cannot be a more blatant example of the privatization of public space. Many remember the wrestling bouts of Dara Singh there and recently noted photographer Mukesh Parpiani of NCPA recalled his photographing legendary boxer Muhammad Ali during an exhibition bout at the stadium. I remember the cycling velodrome there. Incidentally, there was also the industrial unit Hind Bicycles some distance away which shows that cycling had an important place in Mumbai. We are now witnessing a counter revolution in many ways and these changes in the neighbourhood of Nehru Centre occurred during the Congress rule.

Besides, the upper class campaigning for private control of Joggers Park wants to have the cake and eat it too. The supporters want the civic body to contribute funds for maintenance but want to keep the park under their control. The civic body does merit criticism but on another count. Though it is a very rich body, it has behaved like a beggar asking private interests to run the gardens , shirking its own moral and financial duty to run the parks. Some of these have been handed over to very dubious clubs of politicians which have misused the space and made money out of it. After a hue and cry it has taken back some the privately run parks but here again it is selective, it has left alone parks run by politicians close to the ruling dispensation.

The civic body also needs to be faulted for contracting out permanent jobs which means very poor wages and uncertain working conditions for the workers.
Our elite always demands world class facilities for itself while being totally indifferent to the harsh lot of common people. How harsh is seen from the recent drowning of three men in human excreta as the septic tank collapsed while they were waiting for their turn to go to the public toilet at Mankhurd in Mumbai on February 2.. And they were not there to use the facility free, they were paying Rs 2 for entry and the contractor obviously was making a handsome profit.
The elite should remember that public parks almost all over the world are really public, they are free with open access. These are democratic spaces, not exclusive zones for the rich. And in some cities there is digital mapping of toilets. If Mr Modi is serious about Swach Bharat and digital India he could start by improving public toilets and getting them mapped. Coming back to Joggers Park regulars who want to browbeat the poor. Many of them ironically arrive in huge cars and park these free on the roadside. They will be incensed once the civic body starts enforcing its new rules which would make every car parked on the road to pay for use of the public space. So the new civic administration assuming office in the next few days after the election needs to do a lot to provide more public space in a city whose administration has criminally failed to provide adequate space to citizens apart from other basic amenities. It is time for citizens to become active many times over with the new dispensation in the civic body assuming office. For this the upper class citizenery will have to give up its bias against the poor. The present situation is the result of the combined legacy of the former Congress government in the state and the Sena-BJP alliance’s rule in the city’s civic body.

(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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