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Beaches and benches

A genuine public space must allow for a feeling of ownership by the lowest social and economic classes

Photo: AFP

A DEBATE is apparently on in the usual knowing circles whether the unseemly walls around Lalbagh should be brought down so that its green relief stands out beyond the traffic snarls and sprawls. To anybody that wants a garden at home, the answer would be obvious. Who wants to hide the garden? Nevertheless, there is the fact of the wall and the rumour of the debate.

What is it about the worthies that plot and run this city that makes them scornful of the public nature of the few public spaces we have? The ready response to any question on the maintenance of a public space is to erect walls or fences around it, install gates and security guards who will wave lathis at us. For the urban authorities to claim this is warranted because of vandals is to be absurd.

Every public space in and around the city — tanks and ponds, monuments, natural hillocks — has been despoiled by these very authorities by direct encroachment or though endorsement of encroachment by private persons and institutions. It is a well-established fact now among environmentalists that massive deforestation or destruction of natural habitat is possible anywhere in world only with the direct participation of the very authorities set up to protect and maintain them.

The pity is that Bangalore has few public spaces that integrate all classes of citizens. Mumbai and Chennai have their beaches; Delhi has its monuments and Delhi Haat; other cities and towns have their rivers and shorelines. A genuine public space must allow for a feeling of ownership by the lowest social and economic classes. Security guards in a public space are meant to protect it for and not from the public.

It could bear repetition to state that the beaches of Goa are a pleasant experience not because of security guards, but their absence. The beautiful shoreline of Karnataka is washed by the same Arabian Sea, but the government guards that beat the beach at Karwar seek to frighten away visitors at the first opportunity. The claim is that they are protecting visitors from drowning and other immoral activity. In uniform and a stick in hand.

The truth, if one could make such a large meaning of it, is that those that earn lower incomes are likely to be more terrorised by uniforms and sticks than those with higher incomes. To deliberately blur the lines between a vandal and a poor man is probably the most vulgar reason to appropriate a public space. When the cinema halls yield to the posh multiplexes and grimy old markets are brought down for the great malls, can we hide all the poor in our 800 slums and make them watch TV?

The thriving new gardens in the city that have been manicured to new tastes are all in relatively well to do areas and suburbs. This could be true of any other city in the world, perhaps, but there will always be public spaces, natural and human-made, that could accommodate their spare energies and enthusiasm after long workdays and during holidays. It would illogical for a geographical area to grow into a city if it didn't have the natural resources or the commerce to allow for the co-existence of all its necessary classes of people.

While we tuck away the teeming thousands under roads on stilts and flyovers, it may be useful to remember that even the most cynical civilisations plotted to keep the poor at peace with mind-numbing entertainment. Television certainly is a powerful drug, but it might not prove to be Huxley's Soma in our brave new world. Energy unused and anger unventilated could be a lethal combination, if social scientists will permit a rank amateur to expand on such themes.

I don't know if anybody recalls, but there was this protest that was to be a demo by Maxicab operators in Peenya a couple of years ago. What it turned into was a violent outburst with arson and destruction of public property. Maxicab operators were bewildered. That was not part of the plan. The trick was Peenya, that industrial hub that was before high technology Bangalore boomed. If laid-off employees and has-beens of the ghost town thought it was opportunity for some entertainment, would it stand to reason? And, have you noticed, the demonstrations are bringing greater numbers into the street and they are throwing stones and burning buses? One would have thought, with the Lefties all but gone, all this was history.

When you get rid of the trade unions, you don't get rid of the trade too. All these new buildings and flyovers, all these low-wage workers coming in every day from all over the country, they seem to be everywhere. And they want to come to the parks and public spaces. We need to find new places to hide them. Honestly.

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