The Long walk of Freedom: Access to Cities & Question of Belonging

India is celebrating its 75 years of existence as a republic but unfortunately the access to public space has remain a distant dream. The surveillance mindset, poor urban design & the less discourse on civic identity in urban space made the cities inaccessible for the marginalised.

  Picture Courtesy : The Indian Express

The Song of 1977 movie – Gharonda – Do diwane Shahar Mein Raat me ya Dopahar Mein Dhundhte hai Ek Aashiyana (Two crazy people are seeking for a roof in the town in the afternoon or at night.) indicates the relationship between the urban planning & egalitarian private space and the quest of this ‘private space’ way back in the decades of 70s. However, even after 44 years of this classic portrayal of Mumbai as an unequal city nothing has changed in terms of accessibility & belonging. According to a recent report the Indian national capital Delhi has the world’s most CCTV Camera in public places. Forget about ‘Privacy’ in public space the residential buildings in the National capital are also subjected to disproportionate surveillance to places like roofs which are considered to be a place of loiter. It is often considered that surveillance means ‘security; but contrary to this as the authors of the book- “ Why loiter – Women & Risk on Mumbai streets wrote based on the empirical study of the streets that surveillance reduces the accessibility of women in public spaces. The act of surveillance creates a disciplined body like in spaces like prisons, schools, hospitals where people are constantly watched by the authorities. The question of accessibility in cities is more deteriorated due to male gaze, access to resources, less designated city planning, failure to take into account different needs of the different communities in the policy makes ‘equal city’ a distant dream. In
this article my attempt is to look for the pursuit of an “equal city”.

Pursuit of “Equal City”
Public spaces are where the public life of the city is played out and civic identity is defined. A city that is attractive and accessible to everyone offers better quality and standard of living for residents, visitors as well as conditions for long-term economic growth.

Evidence shows that women and men exhibit different behavioural-patterns in public areas, based on gender norms. Urban planning, design and place-making have gender perspectives and a city’s physical structure can either reflect and amplify existing societal inequalities or
conversely create more equal environments. The principles of universal design can help to create spaces that are welcoming and pleasant to use by people from all walks of life, of a mix of ages, irrespective, genders, abilities, religions, ethnicities and socio-economic standing.

Neighbourhood or City Zones that are a mix of residential and commercial uses, green spaces, good public transport networks, health-centres, schools and care-facilities address the needs of all citizens including women and transgender community. Socially safe spaces reduce women’s isolation and empower them to participate. Justice Field in the celebrated case of Munn vs. Illinois rightly pointed out that “the word life is more than the animal existence and it not only includes the mere animal existence but also the quality of life that a person strives for”. The Indian Supreme Court has shaped the widest amplitude of ‘life’ under Art.21 which also includes the right to live with dignity in a plethora of judgment including Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India.

Although the safety concerns issue most often lies within the Government’s remit still many cities offer assistance to survivors/victims of abuse by providing refuge and shelter but, we can also do our bit by cultivating a zero-tolerance attitude towards harassment in public places and by educating the masses about stereotypes and violence. Taking actions in the public sphere can help to create a more welcoming urban environment thus leading to a change in the unhealthy dynamics that may lead to violence in the private sphere.

Gendered violence doesn’t just only affect women: the reality is that men are in fact more often prone to violence and robbery in public sphere while women are more often victims of sexual abuse. Fear of attack and its reality is at its epitome amongst certain communities of colour who face wraths due to racism and sexism, the LGBTQ community is also confronted with Homophobia and Trans-phobia.

Measures to counter this can be taken by organizing social activities that are welcoming to all communities. On public transport, safety can be enhanced by good levels of staffing, Wi-Fi connectivity and the ability to plan a hassle-free journey. Some policy makers may be unaware of the extent of fright that women and trans-women put into, for staying safe in a city therefore including the marginalized voice in urban and mobility planning is the key to creating a better and a safe environment for all.

Legally speaking, it is pivotal to bring about Social Inclusion in terms of Equal Access to cities for all as the Directive Principles of State Policy (DPSP) in our Indian Constitution lays down some basic guidelines for the government which should be taken into consideration while formulating new laws and policies of the country and in executing them, for a welfare state. The research shows that people belonging to scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are less benefited from migration. The social discrimination remains an important factor and continues to impact them in the place of their origin. Exclusionary Government policies often push marginalised communities to the ruffle of the cities which have limited civic infrastructure. Article 46 of the Constitution empowers the government to promote the educational and economic well -being of the SC, ST and other weaker sections of the Society. In the case of Ashok Kumar Thakur vs. UOI the five-judge constitution bench of the Supreme Court relied on Pandit Nehru’s address in the Constituent assembly that “removal of socio-economic equality is the highest priority of the constitution without which the Constitution would become useless and purposeless.

India is celebrating it’s 75 years of existence as a republic. Unfortunately, despite the huge advancement in the economy & technology, the social progress is yet to be achievable. The women, disable & other marginalized communities do not feel belonging to the cities. The access to the cities at night, the right to risk, less surveillance, the right to commute & the policy intended for inclusiveness should be the next step for a ‘equal city’. As David Harvey –said “As we collectively produce our cities, so we collectively produce ourselves. if we accept that ‘Society is made and imagined’ then we can also believe that it can be ‘remade & reimagined’. Let’s imagine a city which is inclusive, equal & give a space to exercise the right to loiter without any distinction on class, caste, Sex, gender & ability.

Rajesh Ranjan is a law student & works on Constitutional literacy & movement through Constitution Connect