The fight for public spaces

The fight for public spaces

New Delhi: India’s growing consumer class is all too familiar with the sprawl of the mall, that ever-expanding bastion of consumerism, offering more choice, more variety, a more complete shopping experience.

More affluent city-dwellers can now watch movies at the mall, eat lunch there, look at art, listen to book readings, drink cocktails, dance in nightclubs; their children can play in the specially designed crèches. In fact, the mall experience has become so all-encompassing that journalists have begun to ask whether culture is moving to the malls to stay. A recent Time Out Delhi cover story, “Life in the Mall", asked, “Are Delhi’s art, culture and social life headed into shopping centres?" With the emergence of gyms, clubs, spas, private colony gardens and malls, there is less and less need for this section of society to spend its leisure time in the city’s designated public spaces. Last November saw an attempt (based on “security concerns") to introduce ID cards for park-goers in Lalbagh and Cubbon Park in Bangalore. A public outcry stopped the intended fee and swipe-card proposal, but last month it was announced that Lalbagh would be allotted armed private security to ensure the safety of tourists and holidayers. In Delhi, the gated colony gardens provide a safe place for local children to play, but they are by no means “public" spaces.

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The popularity of such private alternatives to Delhi’s traditional public arenas suggests that the city could become more socially segregated. As middle-class Delhi flocks to Select Citywalk in Saket for its cultural kicks, to Ozone for its fitness regimes, will it consequently abandon the park, the museum, the art gallery and the library? The answer, according to defenders of the city’s cultural institutions, is probably not. However, there is a perceivable shift in the way these institutions are being used and the type of people who use them.

Neemo Dhar, director of public relations at Delhi Development Authority, says the city’s traditional public spaces are as important to city dwellers as they ever were. She pinpoints new trends in the way Delhi’s residents are spending their time, and money. “People are utilizing malls more and more these days because they have more and more money to spend," she says, “but not at the expense of public spaces. It is the middle and the upper class that have the mall culture; it has been slow to take off in Delhi, but now it is growing."

However, Dhar says that the older institutions will remain an integral part of the cultural map. “Of course, literary people will still use libraries, and art lovers will still go to galleries," she says, “but really it’s the shopping trend that is moving people towards the malls. It’s not at the cost of the library or the park; people are generally going out more now."

The reality is a little fuzzier. Delhi Public Library (DPL) is one public institution that has seen its membership alter over the years. Officially opened in 1951, DPL offered the first free circulation and reference services in Delhi: a revolutionary and somewhat risky experiment. Rapid membership growth in the 1960s encouraged its founders and from 8,000 original volumes in Hindi, English and Urdu, the stock grew to at least 1.8 million books. Membership figures have not remained as robust. Over the past 20 years, DPL statistics show a steady decline in the number of members, sliding by around 20,000 every decade. The number of books issued fell from 2.5 million in 1990 to just over a million last year. But these figures do not tell the whole story. At a time when information is most readily available online, when sharply discounted books can be picked up at concession stands, the library has taken on a new significance. DPL’s central branch, opposite the Old Delhi railway station, retains its old-fashioned atmosphere, but still hums with activity during the week. Many of its members use the library for purposes other than simply borrowing books, and DPL is adapting itself accordingly, offering new services and better facilities.

“The library has become more of a social hub, a workplace, a playschool, an unofficial community centre," says Banwari Lal, a director at DPL. Members “want to educate and improve themselves, they come to check emails, to surf the Internet, to fix their CVs. Young people come to study here, because they do not get the space at home. So, it’s an extremely valuable service to them".

That the library now acts as both a resource and community centre seems to be a result of the technology boom and a concurrent widening of the divide in income and education standards over the past 20 years. DPL offers free Internet access to any member. It has a complete archive of the Hindustan Times and the Navbharat Times dating back to 1952, and it subscribes to 32 newspapers every day. On weekday afternoons, the computer room is full and the wide wooden tables of the reading room are fringed with newsprint-obscured figures. The library screens Bollywood films and cartoons for children, and holds music competitions and workshops. Last year, 125,000 books were consulted in the reference section (more than in 1990).

While malls have become a popular venue for contemporary art exhibitions in Delhi, there are also organizations dedicated to the propagation of art for a wider audience. The Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (Fica) has made injecting art into the Capital’s public spaces a priority. Last year, Fica’s public art grant funded the renewal of a community park in Dakshinpuri, organized by artist Sreejata Roy.

“Public art in its true sense should be available to all," says Parul Vadehra of Fica. “It enhances the aesthetics of an area, engages communities, inculcates civic pride and promotes social participation. All these benefits are the most effective when the art space is accessible by the public in general."

DPL is also aware of the importance of maintaining a broad outreach programme if it is to survive and grow. As well as renovating its Sarojini Nagar branch to include new computers and allow access to the disabled, DPL operates six mobile vans, including a Braille library, which travel out to villages up to 60km from Delhi. It even has a branch in Tihar jail. As it celebrates its 60th year, DPL, one of the few public spaces in the city that remains freely accessible to all, strives to stay relevant to a membership that is bombarded with new choices and opportunities every day.