Delhi (1): The Myth of Public Space

Access to public space is a problem one is forced to confront living in Delhi. It is self-evident that women must hide themselves, cloistered in groups, evading the gaze of the many men that revel in judgement and lechery as a woman passes by.
I don’t like going outside here. It makes me uncomfortable. The stares of the men and the throbbing heat and the piles of cement and trash. They all make me uncomfortable.
We are afraid to go out at night. We become uncomfortably aware of our bodies, masses that hang and cast a shadow over the possibility of democratic access to space.

But we rest too easily in the belief that this is a “woman problem”. We act as though it is men who coopt space and restrict it from female access. We are so enveloped by a righteous anger that it becomes hard to acknowledge the inconvenient masses that the urban elite are itching to evict from public space.

The victims of forced sterilization were 6.2 million Indian men. Lower middle class Indian men. This is a problem that is gendered. It is equally so, classed.

The urban elite has moved further and further away from the bodies it is disconcerted by. We live in complexes and gated communities and colonies (is there any greater irony?) to categorically sequester ourselves away from the gnawing glances of the poor. Space is relegated so the elite inhabit Lutyens Delhi and its offshoots. The rest live in the cracks.
History is not on our side- every indication suggests that Delhi was always a greatly segregated city. Mughal Delhi, British Delhi- when were we ever a spatial democracy? Post-partition, the city was re-ghettoized to accommodate the vast tracts of people flooding in to create homes in little colonies and outskirts that have shaped the contemporary urbanscape. We are a city of fractures held together by sinews constantly thinning.
So we remain segregated. For all intents and purposes, public space itself is a misnomer. No space in Delhi is truly “public”. Each vulnerable population carves out a piece for itself from the spaces not yet enclosed by privatization. There are areas of confluence, but these produce a microsegregation echoing the dissonance between the categories of poor and rich, Muslim and Hindu, woman and man. For all intents and purpose, public space is an illusion.
***
Delhi is dangerous for women. Which women?
Here are the boxes I tick:

Access to a car ☑
Access to a safe private space ☑
Access to “public” information ☑
Access to good healthcare ☑
Access to a phone and a network of contacts in Delhi ☑

These are the boxes that envelop me safely in a form of elitism that can thrive relatively unaffected by a lack of access to space.
Does this mean I am safe?
I walked from India Habitat Center to Khan market last week. A fifteen-minute stroll through the poshest part of Delhi. Yet the seething hostility radiating from men circling around Paan shops made it clear that no part of the city is meant for me.

Access to privilege does not ensure safety.
Access to privilege does not make this city any more mine.

But it does mean that in the excruciatingly complex overlap of intersections, my position allows me relative freedom in spaces where others are prohibited, tangibly and intangibly. Why should my asthma-riddled mother be unable to leave the house for half the year when smog descends upon the city? Why should throngs of people lie in forty degree heat when gated colonies have shaded parks and backyards and gardens that lie unused through the year?

Perpetual fear of rape feels like a “woman” problem. Lechery and judgement feel like “woman” problems. But the ever-shrinking access to public space looms over the whole city, rendering the vulnerable incapable of movement. The elite can escape; retreat into artificial neoliberal havens in Gurgaon entirely disconnected from their surroundings. But what of those who are compelled to stay put, trapped in a dystopian grid of cars and garbage dumps and smoke?
***
I don’t want to be reminded. We don’t want to be reminded.

I want to live my cocooned life in a separate plane of existence, push away the literality of poverty and mundanity and the discomfort of “real” Delhi. Much of the elite has learnt to do this; so much so that it feels like the only way to live. We have learnt to stare children doing cartwheels on the sidewalk straight in the face and pretend that they don’t exist. We peer out of our BMW-shaped-ivory-towers and remain blinded to how the outside is becoming more and more fragmented, less and less accessible. Mass delusion tempers the urgency of our surroundings.

Our relegation of space makes it easy to evade what should be self-evident: everyone is vulnerable. Disavowing the masses, indulging in poverty porn, regurgitating versions of “Delhi is unsafe for women” nestles us in the convenient belief that if men were just herded off the streets, public space would suddenly be democratized and accessible, never mind the vast tracts of society for whom freedom of movement is restricted by a lack of pedestrian spaces, pollution levels that render the outside unliveable, political restrictions on democratic dissent. The umbrella has to grow; the fight for access has to champion more than just those of us who can afford to dissent in public.
Engage with the world around you. Step out of classist assumptions. Offer up space to those who have been cut off. Public space should belong to everyone. Demand it for yourself but also for those whose livelihoods depend on access. There is too much at stake for the bourgeois to rest in the comfortable belief that we can keep escaping the problems of our making. There is too much at stake for us to keep avoiding.

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