What's wrong with Bangalore's parks?

BANGALORE, India — For years, hordes of morning joggers, yoga addicts, bird watchers, fitness fanatics, laughter club devotees and kissing couples have congregated in Bangalore’s two sprawling public parks. But those days may soon be over.

If the government gets its way, public entry into the verdant areas, Lalbagh (or Red Garden) and Cubbon Park, will be regulated and restricted. Authorities are now accepting applications for identity cards and will make these mandatory for entry into the parks during early morning and late evening hours. During regular hours, the parks will be open to visitors at a fee.

The move has sparked outraged protest and a public debate on the government’s attempts to encroach on people’s right to freely access public spaces. Some here see this step as the beginning of the privatization of India’s public spaces.

Lalbagh dates back to two-and-a-half centuries and spans more than 200 acres. The Cubbon Park was created by the British more than a century ago. Both parks have earned Bangalore the tag Garden City. They provide a fitting foil to the hundreds of steel-and-concrete structures that have recently sprouted in the city and its suburbs.

But public access to these beautiful parks is now a casualty of terrorism. The world over, heightened security concerns have dictated access to public buildings and civic structures.

In an over-populous country where the gruesome memories of last year’s attacks on Mumbai’s public and private spaces are still raw, the authorities feel they cannot be careful enough.

In recent years, there have been several terrorist attacks in parks, crowded markets, restaurants and other public places in India. Electrified fences, high walls and security gates manned by armed guards are becoming increasingly common in public and private buildings in the largest cities.

But environmental and civic groups in Bangalore are in an uproar over these security moves. “Why should we pay to breathe fresh air?” said Satyavathi Venkatachala, a retired school teacher who is a regular morning walker at Lalbagh.

The intention is to prevent common folks from using public spaces, feel Bhargavi Rao and Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group. “It is an effort to showcase Bangalore as an elite, investment-friendly city where public spaces are out of bounds for local residents, especially the poor,” said the duo who led a public protest in the Cubbon Park.

The Lalbagh Walkers’ Assocation has also vociferously opposed the government move.

Bangalore’s authorities, meanwhile, say they intend to charge citizens for the identity cards. Citizens, already livid about the usurping of their access to a public space, are outraged that there is a fee for the identity card.

The parks are also a gathering ground for street children, elderly people, migrant workers and other marginalized poor who cannot afford any charge. In a country that affords little privacy to the young, the parks have also served as a sanctuary to the romantically inclined.

The identity card and the charge is an exercise in futility, some feel. “The fee they are charging is not even enough to provide identity card checks at park entry points,” said Vijay Kumar, an employee in a government-owned bank.

Kumar has lived in the vicinity of Lalbagh and walked the park as part of a two-decade old morning ritual.

In Bangalore, the fear is that the parks are just a beginning and soon, there will be nothing public about the city’s public spaces.