The Question of Public Space in a Democracy


Public spaces represent areas which are open and accessible to all people residing regardless of gender, age, race, and ethnicity. Public spaces represent familiarity, safety and accessibility. In India, though compromised in many respects, public spaces have lent themselves to the changing conversation on many occasions.

For instance, Delhi University’s North Campus found its walls and footpaths painted with ‘Pinjra Tod’ for its namesake campaign which aimed at fighting against sexist college and hostel directives. Earlier this year, farmers marched from all over Maharashtra to Mumbai to draw attention to agrarian difficulties and the fallacies of government action. Both issues are starkly different from each other but are essential to the democratic process as a whole. Their discussion and realization depends on the democratic ability to voice their dissent and the physical possibility of galvanizing like-minded forces in public spaces. But again, campaigns, protests and the quintessential Indian bandh are not the only pictures public space paints. Public spaces are essential because they are safe and familiar common spaces. They have to be open to all, accessible by all without fear or discomfort.

The Pinjra Tod Movement (Youth Ki Awaaz)

How does public space affect democracy?

Public spaces are deceptively simple. Streets, parks, markets and maidans don’t just exist for their immediate value of enabling shopping, walking, sitting or transporting. They serve a much more fundamental purpose in cementing the community together. Public spaces foster democracy because they are spaces where people can come together. Any functional democracy survives on the independence and vigilance of its people. Democracies thrive when there is political, civil and social accessibility. Public space is the physical embodiment of such accessibility. Public space impacts democracy because of the following fundamental characteristics:

  1. Public spaces are enablers of free speech, dissent and dialogue. Right from our independence movements under colonial rule to our present day political protests, democracy and access to justice has grown only from uninhibited access to public spaces.
  2. The connection between the two is not just the physical possibility of a meeting place. Public space catalyses change because it allows communities to come together to develop a collective voice. This creates an inclusive atmosphere conducive for meaningful and impactful dialogue. There is a significant psychological impact that movements brought out into public fora have.
  3. Public spaces are transformative. This allows them to be inclusive and accessible. Public spaces are able to lend themselves to different contexts for different sets of people. Be it the candlelit marches in the wake of the disastrous 26/11 terror attacks or the raging protests following the 2012 gang rape, public spaces lend themselves to change and dissent that is essential to democracy.

In India, where our population far outruns our land, making our peace with the dearth of space is a necessity. However there isn’t just a lack of physical land that taints our need for better public spaces, it is also that oftentimes these spaces are unsafe and uncomfortable to minority individuals who access them. Take for instance women and public space. Women access public space with a purpose, be it work, travel or meetings. They rarely languish in public at odd hours especially without company.

The idea that public space fosters democracy is one that can be met only when individual citizens have complete trust in the safety and security of their public spaces. Dissent and dialogue cannot take place in an environment where public spaces are not held to the same standards as the democracy is. Public spaces are ultimately essential to any growing community. For a heterogeneous society to function peacefully, it is necessary to build spaces conducive for social mixing, inclusion, civic participation and political freedom.

Priyanshi Vakharia is a Research Associate (Legal Reform) at One Future Collective.

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