The traffic and parking wars

Public spaces in India are seen through the prism of class

April 04, 2017 05:14 pm | Updated 06:07 pm IST

The fight for space: Is turning our cities into battlegrounds

The fight for space: Is turning our cities into battlegrounds

For years, I’ve been thinking to myself that one of these days, we’re going to start having parking duels. A couple of months ago, the papers reported a quarrel about the parking of a vehicle that escalated into a knife-fight.

How members of our gentlemanly class came upon a knife fast enough that they could just whip it out in anticipation of such some quarrel, I do not know. The newspaper did not offer much detail. All it said was that this fatal quarrel took place inside a housing colony in Mumbai. Parking fights, however, have been erupting all around the city, and I can well imagine how they escalate. I’ve heard words exchanged. Loud, borderline threat words. My space. Where is it written that it is yours? You knocked my mirror. You scratched my car. You get lost. You mind it. I’ll show you. Oh yes? Show me!

I’ve been in cars with friends who have had to drive in circles near markets, looking for a precious free parking spot. I’ve lived in housing complexes that do not allow visitors to park inside the premises. I’ve also seen the excitement of first-car buyers fading to frustration.

On public roads, though, there are less dramatic parking battles. Sometimes I wonder if this is a sign of a tacit acceptance that we all know we’re not supposed to park on public property but, shhh. But then I think, who am I kidding? People tend to leave their cars parked out on the road all day and all night, and I have yet to see anyone apologise for it.

I have often wondered why those cars don’t get stolen. One could even argue that they’re practically asking for it.

And what’s more, the owner of a car left parked on the road all day long is also a sort of thief. He/she steals public space, and not just once but over and over, every single day.

Worse, every car sitting out on the road is a thief of opportunity. There could have been a fruit cart sitting there instead and it would boost the nation’s employment. There could have been a little bit of public art sitting out there instead, which would make the city a more aesthetic experience, or a more politically conscious space. There could even be a series of roadside kiosks that could be put to multiple uses – a phone booth, rain shelter, a flower pot, tree, donation booth, pop-up night school. Why not?

In our cities, we police public space through a moral lens distorted by class. People who park their cars on public land are treated as hapless victims: After all, what else can a car owner do if he/she does not have access to a garage? Poor things, forced to park outside. Anything could happen to the car, no? The government should do something to fix this parking problem. Tsk tsk!

Listen carefully, and you can hear the sympathetic clicking of a hundred million middle-class tongues. In stark contrast is our attitude to people who are forced to park their own bodies on the roadside. They are seen as usurpers, as thieves of public space, constraining the free movement of walkers, who want to descend from their little apartments and offices at least for a few minutes every day.

Our municipal corporations never say: But where else would a poor migrant worker go? Poor things, anything could happen to them, lying out there all day and all night.

The government should find a way to offer free or low-cost temporary housing.

As for people who beg or sell cheap objects by hovering on the edges of the road, occasionally darting into the traffic at great bodily risk, what do we think of them? I’ve never heard any government or city council say: They certainly have a right to be here. The road is public property, after all.

Far too many citizens complain that the sight of people – human bodies – parked on the roads is ugly, that it reflects badly on the city. Nobody complains that the sight of cars double-parked reflects badly on us. Governments use the police to round up poor people and hide them before a visiting head of state arrives.

What I would like to see is a government working up the courage to confiscate all cars parked on the road and dumping them permanently in some junkyard on the fringes of the city.

The difference between the state’s attitude to cars and human bodies sends out the following message: Objects owned by humans who can afford to buy expensive objects are worthy of respect , not so mere human fleh and heart.

And what kind of message is that?

Annie Zaidi is a writer of essays, stories, poems, and scripts for stage and screen.

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