Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Long Live The Public Beach!

Public transportation and public space are two of my abiding passions, and I've been dying to write a post on them for a long time. In my last post, I was going to offer my alternative guide to starting a cause, but discarded it because it sounded too angry:

"Step 1: DON'T meet up with other people like you who are on Facebook. Step 2: DO meet people who don't share your socio-economic background. Step 3: If you think that volunteering will bring you too much discomfort, at least ride a bus!"

If you ignore the venom, the point that I was trying to make is that I think the real joy of giving comes not from writing a cheque or following a cause on Facebook, but from making a difference in peoples' lives. And the first step towards making a difference in peoples' lives is to understand their lives, and riding the bus is the first step towards doing that. Yes, buses can be extremely hot, extremely crowded, and for women dangerous because of all the groping that takes place. I'm certainly not condoning the groping. But buses are also one of the only places in the city where construction laborers, students, housewives and office-goers can sit, stand and travel as equals. Or so I thought.

I was just in Kerala, and found the bus system pretty difficult to navigate because almost all the signs are in Malayalam. I finally figured out where the buses to Kovalam stopped, and was waiting when an AC bus came along. I noticed that, unlike the matter-of-factly labelled "ordinary buses", the signs on the AC bus were in English alone. Inside, there was a high-tech display running instructions on how to behave in the bus, also in English alone. Clearly, there was an expectation that wealthier, English-speaking passengers would take the AC bus, while poorer, Malayalam-speaking passengers would take the ordinary bus. And they were probably right.

There is an environmental argument for AC buses, because they coax car-drivers to take the bus instead. But in the process, they segregate one of the few spaces in the city that was public. This is unfortunately true for most forms of public transportation. In inter-city trains, the better-off passengers are esconsced in the AC cars, where even the intrepid platform vendors fear to tread. In commuter trains there are still first and second classes, despite both being non-AC.

As I was thinking about this I finished Jeb Brugmann's Welcome To The Urban Revolution. There's a lot of material in this book on public space, but I'll just focus on his chapter on the Brazilian city of Curitiba (12). While Curitiba is known for its bus system, the city's mayor convinces Brugmann that the bus system is just one part of a larger strategy to draw people to a range of public spaces, that include open-air shopping plazas, parks and river basins. This got me thinking about whether there are other kinds of public spaces here that I've neglected to see.

In the Indian context, one such public space might be places of worship. Yet while churches and mosques might do a better job at this, in the main Hindu temples you again have a system where the more you pay, the less time you have to spend in line rubbing shoulders with - well, the public.

As I was beginning to lose all hope, I remembered the beach. Notwithstanding recent efforts, Chennai has very few parks, and the beach is one of the only open spaces in the city. And thankfully, these city beaches accomodate middle-class walkers, the ubiquitous vendors, fisher-folk, and a whole host of other characters without too much segregation.

Even attempts to escape these beaches for a more exclusive experience further down the East Coast Road are not entirely successful. The Ideal Beach Resort is a popular destination because tourists and brave Indians can sunbathe in relative privacy. Yet even here, like clockwork every evening, a local herder strides across the beach with his goats, confident that he has the right of way and the hotel staff won't try to stop him.

On our last day in Kovalam we decided to splurge on tea and cake at the five-star Taj resort. The Taj property goes right up to the beach, and occupies a vast expanse. As we walked down its length, we saw only a handful of people - a security guard, a waiter, a couple of guests, and two fishermen. Again, they strolled through the Taj, fish in hand, at ease knowing that at least for now, their claim on the beach as public space, and the source of their livelihoods, is secure. Samanth Subramaniam's Following Fish: Travels Around The Indian Coast is currently waiting on my bookshelf, and I'm eager to think more about this as I read the book.

But, it's quite likely that there are public spaces in which the poor and rich co-exist as equals, that I just haven't thought of. Brugmann's description of Curitiba made me stop to consider vegetable markets and other bazaars in India, and whether these might qualify. If there are public spaces that you know of that could be interesting to reflect on, please add them here.


  1. But what is the need for public spaces? And how do you define them? As I understood from the post, public spaces are not just places where anyone CAN go/be but where people actually DO.
    The thing with beaches, there are "General compartment" [Marina] and "AC" beaches [Elliots] don't you think? The class divide is there is everything we do - where we shop, eat,.

  2. I'm sure there are many people who have tried to define public spaces better than I have (and maybe that's a subject for another post), but working off your comment, I would say that public spaces are spaces where anyone can go. GOOD public spaces are where people actually do.

    I think the reason that it's important that people of all classes (as well as genders etc.) do use public spaces is because, at the very least, they are a visual reminder that we are all inhabitants / citizens of one city, and not several cities. At best, public spaces can become venues in which people actually talk and interact with people from different backgrounds, and therefore gain a better understanding of them.

    While it's true that to a certain extent there's a class divide when it comes to beaches, I don't think it's complete. There are vendors on both Marina and Elliots' beaches, and middle-class walkers on both beaches as well.