Cities are notoriously hostile to lovers. Whether it is public kissing or being rudely accosted in parks, lovers in the Indian city invoke moral panic, social outrage, adverse legal implications, police harassment and moral policing from right-wing outfits, resident welfare associations and their own families. However, the city itself is the background, terrain and critical player in people’s love stories. While discussions around ‘love laws’ often involve issues of criminal and family law, an often missing but critical dimension is municipal law – the law governing municipalities or urban localities.
Malda, West Bengal, India – Janurary 2018: Adina Masjid mosque in the village of Pandua.
How does municipal law construct ‘hostile’ urban space?
The report “Making a Feminist City” discusses the way in which urban space is “constructed” through municipal law. For example, the mere presence of civic amenity sites such as a park in the neighbourhood does not make it necessarily accessible to everyone on an equal basis. If the municipal rules and regulations governing such spaces limit access to certain groups of people through restrictive timings or moral policing, then such places are not really accessible to large sections of the city, including the poor, young, and to those in love.
Right to the City: Right to Love
Unpacking the governance of different public spaces in any city is no easy matter, especially since they might fall under different levels of jurisdiction – central, state and city. Let’s take a look at some of the laws in Karnataka which govern the following spaces:
What is the law on public streets?
According to the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act, 1976, the Municipal Corporation is responsible for the maintenance, repair and improvement of public streets for the purpose of public safety or convenience. This means that street furniture like benches or somberikatte, litter bins or drinking fountains fall under the Corporation’s purview. The Corporation is also responsible for the cleaning, disposal of waste, building and maintaining public toilets and lighting of public streets.
Jane Jacobs’ now-famous phrase ‘eyes on the street’ is ubiquitous in contemporary understanding of building safe cities. Public streets should not only have conveniently built and well-maintained infrastructure but should be attractively designed to encourage people to occupy it, especially street vendors. The Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, aims to protect the rights of urban street vendors by guaranteeing dignified occupation of streets but its implementation is sorely lacking with vendors often being subjected to forceful evictions or harassment.
What is the law on parks?
The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972 is the law governing national parks in India. These are parks specifically declared by the Government to protect flora, fauna, landforms and other areas which have environmental importance. Meanwhile, other parks in the city are governed by the Karnataka Government Parks (Preservation) Act, 1975 which brings them under the purview of the state horticulture department. Finally, there is the Karnataka Municipal Corporations Act, 1976 which mandates municipalities to provide public parks, gardens, playgrounds and recreational spaces and is required to manage and maintain them as a public ‘trustee.’
Much like all public spaces, parks are contested sites and are subject to encroachment, tree felling and moral policing restrictions. For instance, in Bengaluru’s Cubbon Park, the Walkers’ Association has been pushing for restrictions in use of the park space, installing CCTV cameras as well as privatising management of the park. Increased policing and surveillance infrastructure in public parks is detrimental to the privacy of young lovers and contributes to their harassment in public space. Privatisation of park management in Bengaluru has also led to policies such as keeping public parks shut for the majority of the day. These kinds of municipal rules imagine a park as a space solely meant for ‘fitness’ activities such as jogging or walking rather than as a space where different groups can use it for different reasons including leisure or romance.
Urban Heritage Sites
What is the law on urban heritage?
The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1951 applies to notified sites that fall under the purview of the Archeological Survey of India which is tasked with researching, protecting and maintaining such sites. The Karnataka Ancient and Historical Monuments and Archeological Sites and Remains Act, 1961 does the same for sites under its purview. These laws are essential for the protection of cultural heritage. Criticism regarding attempts to dilute such sites in favour of infrastructure projects are common especially after schemes such as the ‘Adopt a Heritage’ scheme by the Ministry of Tourism that allows private corporations and entities to take over management of sites of national importance.
However, a majority of urban heritage sites, buildings, precincts and natural sites etc. do not fall under either of these laws and require protections at the municipal level. The Zoning Regulations (Amendment) Act 2020 prepared under the Karnataka Town and Country Planning Act, 1961 are a recent attempt to craft ‘heritage regulations’ to conserve, preserve and protect urban heritage in the state.
What is the law on public libraries?
The Karnataka Public Libraries Act, 1965 governs the establishment, maintenance and comprehensive development of both urban and rural public libraries systems. While the Department of Public Libraries in Karnataka manages all issues concerned with the public libraries, the Local Library Authorities which include the District and City Library Authorities are directly responsible for providing library services to the people of their jurisdiction. They have to do this in accordance with a Local Library Development Plan, to be prepared with inputs from the public.
The actual state of public libraries in our cities seems to be bleak – lack of accessible infrastructure, shortage of funds, general mismanagement and outdated library policies that haven’t kept up with the times. While 6% of property tax is collected by urban local bodies as library cess, they have often failed to make timely payments to library departments and in Bengaluru in particular, the BBMP has failed to do this for over six years!
So how can you help make your city lover-friendly, safe and equitable?
This state of affairs should be a wake up call to lovers in the city, young as well as old, to get involved in the municipal affairs of your respective city or town!
- Find out the concerned departments that govern and manage your favourite park, heritage site or any civic space and write to them about your concerns or needs!
- Find out which ward you live in and get involved in the area sabhas or ward committee that your local neighbourhood falls under. If you are novice to civic activism, take a look at this handy guide on ward committees. Find more information online, take note of when the next ward committee meeting is taking place and show up with your friends and make sure your concerns are heard!
- In case your local ward committee isn’t established or hasn’t been conducting meetings, write to your elected representative – this would be the Councillor who represents your ward and demand that they do better!
- Above all, inform yourself of your civic rights and understand the structural issues involved in urban development and municipal governance. This will make sure that you are equipped as an urban dweller to not only understand civic issues but play an active role in how your favourite public spaces are governed and are kept lover-friendly!
Sneha Visakha is a Research Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Karnataka. She is also creator and host of the Feminist City, a podcast series looking all things urban from a feminist perspective, which can be accessed here. This article also has inputs from Prerna Dadu, Ameya Bokil and Sneha Priya Yanappa.