Our authorities willing, let us reclaim Delhi’s neighbourhood parks
Delhi park where journalist Aparna Kalra was assaulted was a den of addicts and alcoholics after sundown, who took refuge in its many unlit patches. Delhi has 14,000 public parks and open spaces. Many of these are unsafe.columns Updated: Apr 10, 2017 17:15 IST
Aparna Kalra, a former colleague, loved walking. On Wednesday evening, when she was on her regular evening stroll at a neighbourhood park in Ashok Vihar, someone smashed her head with a stone. A passerby found her bleeding profusely and informed the police.
Two days later, police arrested a man, reportedly an alcoholic and a drug addict, who used to loiter in the park. On Wednesday, when he accosted her, Kalra ignored him. He told the police this got him angry. He picked up a stone and hit her on the head repeatedly till she collapsed. He then fled.
It is difficult to anticipate the criminal intention of a stalker. But the lawless surroundings certainly embolden them. The park where Kalra was assaulted was a den of addicts and alcoholics after sundown, who took refuge in its many unlit patches. It had several entrances, only two guards and no CCTV coverage.
Delhi has 14,000 public parks and open spaces. Many of these are unsafe. Complaints about the presence of criminals and addicts to the police are not even considered worth cognisance until there is an incident of violence.
In February, a woman was raped in Deer Park next to Hauz Khas village. The same month, two cousins were chased and killed by a group of men in Rohini’s Japanese Park. In 2003, the rape of a 17-year-old by four men from the Presidential Guards at Buddha Garden shook Delhi. In all these cases, police responded quickly and arrested the culprits.
But ensuring safety takes a lot more than responding to violent crime. Safety in public places needs to be treated in the wider matrix of urban planning. A manual produced by Toronto Parks & Recreation identifies poor lighting, confusing layout, physical and aural isolation, poor visibility, no access to help, areas of concealment, poor maintenance, vandalism and presence of “undesirables” as the physical characteristics that can have a direct impact on people’s perceptions of safety and their willingness to use a park.
There has been no such survey on the security of parks in Delhi. But according to Safetipin, which developed a mobile app that gives information on safety collected through audits, well-lit places have the highest impact on the feeling of safety. This is followed by eyes on the street, gender usage and presence of crowds.
Delhi, in fact, reclaimed one of its most notorious public places, the Central Park in Connaught Place, by making these changes. Back in the 1980s and the 90s, this island in the middle of the bustling traffic was a den of prostitution, drug dealing and thievery. A policeman once warned me and my friend, telling us not to stand near the park gate. “Achche ghar ki ladkiyan yahan nahin jati hain (Girls from respectable homes don’t go to this park).”
With the arrival of Metro at Rajiv Chowk in 2005, the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation restored the park with proper lighting and walking paths. The local police chipped in with better surveillance. The municipality opened it up for cultural events and concerts. Today, it is the best place in CP to take a break.
But that is the city’s VIP district. Not all civic zones in Delhi get the same attention. The capital needs a citywide drive to secure its parks. For the neighbourhood ones, a park watch could be raised that encourages surveillance by local residents and shopkeepers. A dedicated helpline or a mobile app could help report criminal activities or maintenance issues. Such schemes, however, fails if not followed up by quick action.
The Toronto Manual states that areas of the parks should be in the line of sight of nearby houses, stores or activity areas to assure visibility. One of the worst mistakes authorities make is raising the perimeter walls of the parks. Redesigned in the 1930s with high walls, New York City’s Bryant Park turned into an isolated area, a safe haven for drug dealers and addicts.
In the 1980s, the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation took over, provided extra sanitation and security, and — as the official website puts it — “filled up as many hours as possible with programming that drew law-abiding citizens in and chased criminals out.”
It is a shame that Delhi, one of the world’s greenest capital cities, has surrendered what should be a rare privilege. With a little help from police and civic authorities, it is time to reclaim our parks.