Lalbagh doesn’t read anymore

Despite being urban green spaces, public parks often restrict access to their ‘green’ areas through park rules.
Last Updated : 10 November 2023, 18:43 IST

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The Karnataka Horticulture Department’s actions are transforming public parks such as Cubbon Park and Lalbagh into private playgrounds for walkers and joggers’ associations. In April this year, revised Park Use Rules in Cubbon Park prohibited a string of activities, including meeting in groups, sitting on the lawns, couples holding hands, eating, climbing trees, and playing. Recent reports highlight how Lalbagh administrators have banned silent reading groups, citing complaints from park walkers. The ban targets communities that gather on the lawn to silently read books or e-read, sitting on mats to protect the grass. Surprisingly, these reading groups are now considered a threat to the park’s flora and fauna. Administrators have gone so far as to instruct park personnel to photograph readers on the lawn. Such rules and practices risk reducing park usage, potentially leading to the neglect of these public spaces. Park use regulation should promote responsible usage, considering that the revenue for maintaining these green spaces comes from city residents through various forms of taxation and user fees. Discriminating against certain legitimate park activities raises concerns about equal access to green spaces.

Public parks serve as spaces of recreation, exercise, and relaxation, and they should continue to do so. Dictating park use through designated walking paths alone is a guaranteed way to diminish public park usage. The Horticulture Department appears to be losing sight of the very purpose of public parks by imposing restrictions on activities such as sitting on the lawn, playing games, having picnics, or reading. These limitations not only jeopardise people’s connection with the park but also threaten the park itself. Public parks symbolise public culture, connection to the city, access to green spaces, and community aspirations. Engaging in activities like reading, climbing trees, jogging, or training for marathons are all valid uses of public parks.

The Horticulture Department’s preference for certain activities, like walking, jogging, or birdwatching, is inexplicable.

Despite being urban green spaces, public parks often restrict access to their ‘green’ areas through park rules. Perhaps this anomaly has to do with the fact that green spaces in the park have manicured plant species that require extra care and may not thrive easily in local environments. The question arises: are we prioritising park aesthetics over legitimate park usage? One of the reasons behind such unreasonable rules is that park authorities do not imagine that users will access and enjoy green spaces for what they are. Sitting on the grass or climbing trees in an urban setting are activities that are available only in public parks. Only privileged people have access to lawned spaces or large trees within their homes in the city to enjoy proximity to nature. Most of us depend on public parks for such joys. One way of balancing access to ‘green’ spaces within the park and caring for different species of plants is to earmark some low-risk parts of the park where people may make use of the lawns and greener parts of the park.

A key factor that surfaces here is how the state adopts a rather carceral approach to certain ‘publics’ in the park. ‘Proper’ and ‘improper’ behaviour within public parks is mediated through rules that largely outline who is a ‘legitimate’ park user. As an anonymous person from the Horticulture Department admits, the purpose of a botanical garden is only to enjoy nature through walking or birdwatching, not for activities like reading. Demonising silent reading communities is perhaps just the starting point of a carceral approach towards public parks. One wonders whether it is worth paying the entry fee at Lalbagh at all! The Horticulture Department is overlooking the fact that the sustenance of botanical gardens depends on user fees. Overzealous regulation of activities within the park may result in a declining number of park users because people may come to value public parks less as the activities they can perform within the park are highly restricted.

Recent rules at Cubbon Park and Lalbagh point to deeper questions that have no forthcoming answers yet. Why does the state’s Horticulture Department feel pressured to accommodate the interests of walkers and joggers’ associations alone? Are Bengaluru’s public parks meant only for use by privileged groups who can afford running shoes and DSLR cameras? Finally, what is so unique about Bengaluru’s public parks that the state refuses to allow legitimate and responsible park use for other groups?

(The writer is an associate professor at Jindal Global Law School and a project fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)

Published 10 November 2023, 18:43 IST

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