Growing up in Shivajinagar, we never had a quiet moment near our house. The streets were always full of people and vehicles. One of our pastimes, therefore, was to cycle on Commercial Street on Sunday mornings. In the early 90s, most stores on Commercial Street stayed shut on Sundays. So in the mornings, the street was always silent and empty, allowing us children to cycle in peace. While that is my earliest memory of Commercial Street, in the recent past, I have visited Commercial Street mostly to go to Commercial Street police station. The road means police to me.
All of us experience cities differently, based not just on our class-caste-gender location, but also on what we do. For me, my experience of Bengaluru is largely through its streets. For the past 13 years, I have been engaged in various issues related to the streets. My fascination with streets started in 2009. I started volunteering with Hasiru Usiru, a network that was fighting the illogical road-widening plan of BBMP. That work slowly started getting me to learn about streets as commons – as a resource to be equitably shared by all.
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It got me thinking about the real role of streets in a democracy — who occupied the streets most, how was it fair that bus users who contributed so little to the traffic suffered the most from traffic jams etc. For the past decade, I have been a part of the Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedik and the Bengaluru Jilla Beedhi Vyapari Sanghatanegala Okkuta.
My experience of Bengaluru has also changed over the years as I have been doing more and more work with issues related to the streets and those using them. When I walk down a street now, I am not lost in thoughts or my device. Many things jump up at me.
Cars over people
The other day I was walking from Jayanagar Metro satiation towards 4th block. I saw several cars parked on the road and it made me angry. Police and elite citizens push for street vendors to be away from roads, but the city thinks nothing of offering streets free for cars to park for any stretch of time. When I take a bus, my eyes do an auto-scan of the bus stop to see if there is a shelter in the first place (more than half of our bus stops have no shelters), whether it has any information at all on which buses come etc.
A week ago, I was riding a pillion on a friend’s scooter when we stopped at a signal near KR Market and I saw someone who was homeless, sleeping on the footpath. It reminded me of a survey on homelessness I was a part of in 2010-11. Over three nights, several of us from across Bengaluru went street to street, doing a count of the number of people who were homeless. It was an eye-opening week. Ever since then, I am really thankful for my cot and blankets at home, especially when it’s raining outside, or in winter. The kind of work I have engaged with has meant that an unfair use of the street quickly registers in my mind. Some of it are things that me and the groups I am part of can address, some of it is not. And when we cannot address it, it does really disturb us.
Flowers and foody delights
That said, these are not the only things I spot on the streets of Bengaluru. For me the streets are sources of joy. I love the March-April season when there are several flowers in bloom – Tabeubias, Pride of India, Jacaranda, Gulmohar etc. As I was walking down Jayanagar 4th block the other day, I spotted a pink lily growing next to a street side tree. It gave me so much joy that I stopped to click pictures of it from various angles. In the summer, the sight and easy access of Nerale Hannu (Jamun), Halasina hannu (jackfruit), maavina kai (raw mango) on the streets is a source of much joy. Have you ever noticed howdifficult it is to cut/extract Halasina hannu and how it is mostly only sold by the streed vendors and never in the shops? I am always on the lookout for newer street foods.
Especially over the past decade, I have noticed the bhoochakra gadde (it is still not clear to ecologists if its a root, stem etc) on the streets. I am also proud of how Bengaluru’s streets are home to a variety of chaats – we have the Bangarpet panipuri, we have the north-Indian panipuri with channa and alugadde (potato), we have the south Indian variety with bataani (peas) and hot masala. Avenue trees, street food and flowers are some of the things that bring joy to me in Bengaluru.
Bengaluru’s streets for me are sites of joy and a space where injustice prevails at the same time. My work, along with several others, has been to see how we make sure that the street is a source of joy and justice -- for all.
The first thing I think is to recoginse that streets are the commons and they belong to all, that they must be distributed equitably. Right now, like many cities across the world, private vehicles, especially cars, occupy most of the streets, streets themselves are designed mostly for movement of vehicles. In a city where real estate is at a premium, an SUV can be parked on the road for free. Streets are seen only as roads – as space for the flow of vehicles.
Of leisure and livelihood
But we must also recognise streets as spaces for leisure, for livelihoods, for urban forestry, for public demonstrations of dissent, and as spaces for art. Right now with the number of private vehicles increasing (and the number of buses being stagnant for a decade) everyone only thinks of congestion.
Thus the majority of Bengalureans, the administration, sees it fit to cut trees and widen roads. With wider roads we have narrower footpaths. The rich of the city feel that it is okay to evict street vendors so that city’s footpaths are “vendor-free” and they can walk. We need to recognise that street vendors are legitimate users of the street. That it is vital to have trees on all streets and not just in a park or forest. The space that is used to park cars, some of it can easily be converted to street side benches so that people can actually sit on the streets, under the trees. It is possible to have solutions that work for all, but for that the car-users have to give up some of the disproportionate space they occupy.
Spaces for protest
Streets are also being emptied of dissenting voices as well. With the prodding of the High Court, the Bengaluru police passed the Licensing and Regulation of Protests, Demonstrations and Protest Marches (Bengaluru City) Order, 2021, in January, 2022, restricting protests to Freedom Park and stopping all marches including the Pride March and the May Day rally. Inspite of activists petitioning the current Chief Minister to withdraw this unconstitutional rule, it has not happened yet. Thus even street vendors who want to protest an unfair eviction, pourakarmikas who sweep the streets every day have only to go to Freedom Park, invisibilising themselves, if they want to protest.
Bengaluru’s streets are key to improving the quality of life for all. We can and should ensure we have fewer private vehicles and use that space to have more public transport buses, trees, benches and spots for art and leisure. We must reclaim streets as spaces for dissent and public dialogue. All this can happen if more of us think about the streets and whether they are being used justly.
(Vinay Sreenivasa is an advocate based in Bengaluru. He is associated with Bengaluru Jilla Beedhi Vyapari Sanghatanegala Okkuta and Bengaluru Bus Prayanikara Vedike and works for the just use of streets in cities.)