The shrinking space for public gatherings in the city is an attack on the legitimate rights of the people.

The seat of power is the site of protest. Agitations are nothing new to the State capital, but of late, the burgeoning city has been finding them too difficult to handle. A protest or a cultural procession brings in a slipstream of complaints — traffic snarls, delayed work, missed appointments …

But the people have the right to protest or take out a procession. The shrinking space for public gatherings in the city may be not only depriving it of its charm but also denying the legitimate rights of the people to air their concerns and stage protests or celebrations.

The capital has always been a nerve centre of political and cultural activities, a legacy from the pre-Independence period. Public meetings called by the Congress and other groups against the British to consolidate the freedom movement had been momentous occasions. After the formation of the State, political meetings gained even more emphasis.

Vast expanses of land and street corners turned into arenas for public gatherings and articulation of ideas and ideals.

The Martyr’s Square at Palayam; Putharikandam Maidan and Gandhi Park at East Fort; Rajendra Maidan at Pettah; and Attakulangara Maidan near Vettimuricha Kotta have been some of the choicest destinations of political, social and cultural leaders. Three decades ago, the sprawling Putharikandam Maidan used to be the regular venue for an annual exhibition organised by the City Corporation. Famed circus companies and drama troupes which Kerala alone can boast of would pitch a tent on the maidan and regale the public. Even as such major shows took centre stage, street magicians, vendors, snake charmers and small-time circuses would coexist comfortably with them in the vicinity without mutual rancour. In addition to such entertainment were street plays organised by the Nataka Yogam and other theatre groups. Such programmes used to draw a dedicated audience.

Putharikandam Maidan and Gandhi Park have been witness to the evolution of the political history of the State. The Marxist ideologue E.M.S. Namboodiripad used to address the public at regular intervals at both venues. Crowds would roar animatedly to the wisecracks of the former Chief Minister E.K. Nayanar and the Bharatiya Janata Party leader K.G. Marar.

The city has had its unique team of feisty orators such as the Communist Party of India leader Kaniyapuram Ramachandran and C.K. Seetharam, who would entice the public with their distinct oratory skills. The Congress leader N. Peethambara Kurup is another orator of note. The city used to raise a toast to fiery orators such as M.V. Raghavan. Such speeches and events have receded into oblivion.

Once growth and development became the focus of the city planners, various agencies began occupying public spaces leaving precious little for political leaders and the marginalised and deprived sections for public interaction. Political leaders are sore over the curbs imposed by developers in using prime spots. The latest instance is the restrictions on holding functions and putting up flags and festoons at the Martyr’s Square.

Need for space

K. Mohan Kumar, president, District Congress Committee, says the city should have enough open spaces for public gatherings. It need not be at the expense of development.

Kadakampally Surendran, district secretary, Communist Party of India (Marxist), says corporatisation of infrastructure development is the main reason for the situation.

The agencies entrusted with development are arbitrarily fixing a rent for prime city spaces without a public consensus. Simultaneously, the rent for the University Senate Hall and VJT Hall has been enhanced manifold. Tagore Theatre has been closed for maintenance. This smacks of a conspiracy. The development agencies’ bid to levy a rent for public places such as the Martyr’s Square is only aimed at muffling public protests, he says.

Developing venues such as the Boat Club in Delhi is the best option. Both Mr. Mohan Kumar and Mr. Surendran approve of the proposal for converting the Shangumughom beach into a destination for public functions. “The Congress has conducted protests on the beach violating ban orders as part of the freedom struggle. The beach is a wise option,” Mr. Mohan Kumar says.

“The CPI(M) had shown the way by organising the public rally at the end of its Kerala March on the beach. Of late, a concrete pathway constructed on the beach on the premise of beautification is a major impediment in organising public functions there,” Mr. Surendran says.

While discussions are on about a master plan for the city, the planners do not seem to be serious about the issues raised by political leaders. A developing city should provide space for the people to gather and express their angst and protest against what they feel is patently wrong.

Whether this will be addressed is what remains to be seen on finalising the master plan.