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Vol. XXVIII No. 13, October 16-31, 2018

When political parties take over citizens’ spaces

by A Special Correspondent

Misuse of public surface and aerial space and walls is taking place right in front of our eyes every day. Those responsible are shopkeepers, vendors, bus and truck owners and householders restricting usable road space, preventing safe pedestrian use of pavements, clogging drains and causing road accidents. In the list of offenders, the self-authorised abuse of public facilities by political parties is reserved for special mention for the scale and audacity of their virtual take-over of the City unmindful of the hardship to citizens.

Recently, we saw the chaos created by a political function – citing which is not to cast reflection on the eminence of the political personality whose memory was being honoured. By someone’s count 138 hoardings were erected on a kilometre stretch on the arterial road of Chennai through which all traffic incoming and outgoing has necessarily to go through. The hoardings were grouted on the platforms forcing poor pedestrians to walk nervously close to the edge of busy Anna Salai to avoid being run over and to escape the adventurous driving styles of State Transport drivers who have declared their independence long ago. To enhance the celebratory ambience even further, hundreds of hoardings, thousands of flags and festoons were erected all over the city by Party functionaries vying with each other in number, size and colour as a measure of loyalty to their leadership. All this, in the face of the Court declaring such use of public space as illegal.

Commandeering public spaces and facilities by political parties is not limited to special occasions. We see multi-coloured graffiti on public walls in most streets. They occupy the whole wall surface, stretching across 30-40 feet, eulogising the qualities of head and heart of the leader. We are happy to have such leaders taking charge of our destinies which, they think, is more than enough to compensate us for losing spotlessly walled streets. Who pays for cleaning up the ugly graffiti and repainting? Most often the unclean walls are not restored and the question of paying for it is not allowed to arise.

Use of public space is necessary for expressing ideological beliefs and messages in a democracy but this needs to be balanced against the cost to citizens in terms of safety, convenience, ease of movement, speed in coping with emergencies, diverted traffic, missed flights, lost opportunities, adverse effect on pollution and so on. Hundreds of hoardings, huge arches and cut-outs and flags are traffic hazards and should be prohibited altogether. Mass meetings at the apex level for birthdays and anniversaries could be substituted by manageable gatherings spread over district centres whereby, in fact, the message would be more effectively disseminated.

One mass meeting of a lakh or two for mere demonstration of strength is at heavy social cost. Announcements of meetings can be made in newspapers instead of obstructive hoardings and arches. Meetings should be outside peak hours.

Areas subject to large-scale ingress and egress should be avoided for large gatherings. Meetings near schools, colleges and hospitals should not be permitted. Under no circumstances should pedestrian conveniences be compromised.

Nor are political parties the only “culprits”. Construction of pandals spanning the road in front of temples at festival, namaz on roads and blaring microphones at all times of the day from these sources are going unchecked.

Irresponsible intrusions into the citizens’ rightful space, perhaps, is the main reason why Tamil Nadu is at the top in All India ranking for road fatalities. In 2017, the State recorded the number killed in road accidents at 48,746 two-wheeler users, 20,457 pedestrians and 3559 cyclists. The numbers show a rising trend from 2014.

Effective use of public spaces and their imaginative design are two aspects. The continued proliferation of shops and vendors overflowing onto the pavements are signs of a vibrant economy. But their inefficient use of valuable space, public and private, is sign of ineffective governance. In days of high-rises, inhabited space is no longer reckoned two-dimensionally. A thousand square feet on the ground is equivalent, spatially, today to five thousand square feet or so of habitable space. So, a thousand small shops of 2-300 square feet each are in effect taking up five or more times of the ground space they need. This is inefficient use of precious space besides being the cause of congestion.

Lattice Bridge Road is an example. All the shops on either side could perhaps be shifted to a single multi-storeyed mall with adequate parking space liberating enormous space, reducing congestion. A cursory visit to a MRTS station – say, Indira Nagar station – would show that there is plenty of space for accommodating most of the shops of Lattice Bridge Road with scope for even parking space under the elevated rail track. The disproportionately huge MRTS stations that wear haunted looks are unsafe for passengers, especially women and children, and could be made more active by putting them to better use to relieve congestion and crowding in adjacent and near-by areas.

Political scientists who have studied public spaces in cities across the world, observe that safe and accessible public spaces promote creative activities and participatory democracy. Cities of countries are judged by the quality, aesthetics and extent of public spaces. When will we have artistically designed urban public spaces, serving as recreational, cultural and political centres of exchange – with paved plazas and fountains, greenery and flowerbeds and artistically impressive buildings – encouraging people to gather to hear piped or live music, enjoy the ambience, discuss the day’s politics and shop for necessities?

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