Nothing enrages road commuters as much as being held up in traffic, especially when the congestion is caused by thousands of protestors who occupy the city’s streets, mostly in the heart of south Mumbai, for a few hours. When this occurs twice in ten days, as it did at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus where two massive protests culminated, indignant commentators and opinion leaders suggest that “the State must crack down on organisations that block the streets”.
This narrative neatly centres on their right to the city but excludes the right of those others, the protestors. The story of the protest march, the grievances of the protestors, the resolve of thousands to engage in an activity not as convenient as strolling down the aisles of a mall, the use of public space by people who demand their rights, all become secondary to the story of how traffic was held up due to the protest march.
This is neither surprising nor exclusive to Mumbai. The Occupy Wall Street in New York’s Zuccotti Park which galvanised citizens to protest social and economic inequality was also commented upon for its disruptive impact on the city. The Occupy movement that brought out thousands of citizens to streets in hundreds of cities across the world in 2011-12 elicited similar reactions. The protests by Black Lives Matter in more than 30 cities across the United States this month to demonstrate against police brutalities drew comments about inconvenience.
Indeed, cities by their very nature are home to large protests. A study of protests in 30,000 zip codes across the US by sociologists Terry N. Clark and Brian B. Knudsen led them to conclude that “Cities possess size, density, connectedness, and walkability which combine to enable learning, speed the creation and transfer of ideas, and generate and enable bridging across diversity. Cities therefore become locales for social change and hubs of innovativeness of many kinds—economic, political, cultural, and even ethical”.
Embedded in the criticisms and calls for crack down is the idea that the streets and public spaces in a city belong to those who commute and are engaged in productive economic activity – and to no one else. Why should thousands of data entry operators and hundreds of thousands of Dalits clog up the streets to CST? Perhaps, because they were unheard when they used other methods and they wanted to shout-out to the government.
Mumbai’s history is replete with massive demonstrations which articulated the sentiments of citizens on a range of issues – from demanding independence for India to opposing the textile mill owners. Typically, the roads and bridges in central Mumbai where the masses lived and worked saw the large demonstrations. Girgaum Chowpatty, Kala Ghoda, Sachivalaya signal, Samrat Chowk used to be the congregation points. More lately, the end points have been Azad Maidan and CST.
In fact, protestors have a right to congregate and terminate their march at Azad Maidan and CST. This was decided by the Bombay high court way back in 1997 when inconvenienced citizens knocked on its door complaining that protestors held up traffic and caused noise pollution. The HC stated that there was a need to arrive at a system which would be in everybody’s interest and suggested that the government come out with a coherent policy. The “everybody” included trade unions and organisations that call for protest marches.
Twenty years later, the policy seems to be in the making. In both the recent marches, the police were apparently clueless about the size and nature of the demonstrations. It is the responsibility of the police and other authorities to assess the situation, determine routes that protestors can take, make arrangements to discharge traffic and issue alerts to commuters. Planning for protests with minimum disruptions is not an impossible task.
Citizens of a democracy do have a right to congregate and protest. All who crib about traffic, target the State (or the police), not the protestors.