Citizens’ right to public space

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There’s limit to sacrificing it for personal security

We live in a country which treats public space as charity for its citizens. Most urban areas are overtaken by congestion, pollution and chaos. But the few exceptions still left were the immaculate green spaces of Chandigarh and Delhi celebrated for their elegant tree-lined avenues. Over the years these too have been degraded with tents and porta cabins that house security personnel guarding politicians, judges, the police brass itself and bureaucrats. But recently the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, which has been hearing a PIL, has successfully overseen the removal of a majority of such encumbrances on public space. Unfortunately in Delhi, the phenomenon of security personnel occupying sidewalks meant for pedestrians and cyclists continues, despite numerous solutions having been proposed.

To be fair, let us hear the version of the main protagonist — the security police. Indeed, if there is a threat perception and the individual falls into the XYZ categories the police has no option but to post the posse of policemen outside his house, as prescribed. When the “protectee” (in police parlance) disallows habitation inside the boundary of his bungalow, (notwithstanding a 2-3 acre expanse being available where umpteen personal offices have been built,) the only option available to the security boss is to locate the guards outside the perimeter. And that explains why most options are closed.

Now let us consider it from the point of view of the citizen. In other countries, the man on foot is treated like God. Pedestrian walkways and street furniture are specially designed for smooth, uninterrupted walking. Benches are placed conveniently where one can eat a sandwich or read a book. There are no tents and porta cabins anywhere. That is because the citizens guard their open spaces fiercely and place a high value on easy access to sidewalks. But consider just one sidewalk on Tilak Marg, New Delhi — the address of the Supreme Court of India. It is the main artery for international visitors driving to Rajghat, to the Red Fort and Jama Masjid. A third of Delhi’s population destined for ITO and old Delhi drive through Tilak Marg. Even so, for the last 20 years a porta cabin with its line of washed underwear strung between two trees is one of the sights on view.

Certainly it is not the fault of the five police personnel who have no option but to eat, sleep, bathe and wash their clothes on the sidewalk of Tilak Marg dressed or undressed. With temperatures soaring beyond 43 degrees Celsius, it must be a torture. When asked why the ‘protectee’ could not be relocated in a gated complex with adequate space for security guards, a senior police friend said, “None of them will agree to move to such complexes. And should there be a terror attack, the sentry on duty will shout and four men will immediately leap in and crush the intruder.”

A former police commissioner of Delhi, Mr T R Kakkar, was fortunately more realistic. “It is possible to house security guards within the nearest police station. The police stations in the NDMC area have the space. One sentry could be stationed for two hours at a time with modern communication systems to alert the security guards at the police station. Where foliage is not a problem CCTV cameras can be used. PCR patrolling can do the rest. It would be a boon for the boys.”

Security obstacles also include the stacks of unsightly sand bags that have sprung up all over Delhi. Roosevelt House (American Embassy) is one of the most emblematic buildings in Delhi’s diplomatic enclave surrounded by tree-lined streets. But every nook and corner is dotted with ugly sand bags intended to protect the security personnel as they fight picketers and terrorists. In other countries they use barricades and stainless steel bollards which move up and down to prevent vehicles from gaining entry until screened. Setting up such bollards might be a better answer than stacking heaps of sand bags to conduct warfare.

The good news reported by police friends is that the majority of the people who once refused security guards inside the perimeter of their houses have begun co-operating — at last. The second good news is that the NDMC is not permitting new security structures on their roads. The third good news is that the number of non-entitled persons who had earlier grabbed security cover has declined considerably; not comparable perhaps to the Punjab government which has slashed security cover from several entrenched hangers-on.

The bad news at least for Delhi is that the quest for personal security is no longer confined to police protection. Porta cabins stand outside most homes in South Delhi blocking footpaths and forcing the elderly and children to walk on the main road. While many private security guards gamble, drink, smoke and play cards, their presence has become indispensable. But when residents engage private security not just to guard the house but to pilot their masters much like ‘Z’ category security guards it becomes cause for concern. The SUV carcade flashing a string of lights (strictly prohibited under the Motor Vehicles Act) zoom through the colony creating a huge ruckus. The accompanying security guards wearing black bandanas have barred residents from entering their own apartments. Such was their hooliganism that an aggrieved resident of Delhi’s prestigious Defence Colony approached Delhi’s Public Grievance Commission to intercede. He received the commission’s support but if this is the shape that private security takes, citizens have a brand new problem on their hands.

In a democracy, of all freedoms, the freedom to move without hindrance in public and private space is among the most highly regarded. Public order is critical for stability but in the zeal to maintain public order those in authority must strike a balance between individual security on the one hand and important public freedoms on the other. Citizens have a right to determine acceptable levels to which their rights should be sacrificed in the name of personal security. It is time all agencies put their heads together to ensure that the citizens’ interest remained uppermost.n

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