No Man is an Island… Or is he?: The Trending Privatization of Public Realms
“Public spaces are the window into a city’s soul…” Sharon Zuchin, 1995
The ongoing privatization of the public realm points to a paradigm shift in the way cities have been redefined. Due to the new liberal economy, a more capitalist approach has emerged and with it, a clear divide in society. The “image of the city” reflects these different facets as public spaces undergo a massive make-over. The desire for exclusivity has prevailed in society, regardless of time and space. Aristocracy, feudal systems and colonialism manifested man’s lust to be part of an elite minority. Today, in the era of globalization, we see the private sector penetrate and take over public spaces with purely financial motives. As a result, the inherent democratic quality of these spaces is lost.
Colonial rule in India saw the establishment of the Gymkhana clubs in Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay. These operated on an exclusivity based on race, catering to mainly British officers and traders, a class that was denied membership to clubs in England since they were not “landed gentry.” However, as the new ruling elite in India, this was one of the privileges they bestowed upon themselves. Ironically, in a replication of the exclusive nature of the English clubs, membership was denied to most non-whites. Unlike the gentleman’s clubs in England though, these allowed women, probably in an attempt to make life in India more palatable to them. The very few Indians who were allowed into these clubs had to earn this privilege through some service or other rendered to the Crown or because of their extremely high status.
After Independence, the ownership of these exclusive clubs came into the hands of private Indian societies. Membership continued to be restricted to the elite with waiting periods that ran into years. In the newly sovereign nation, it is quite clear that hard-won democracy did not extend into these increasingly privatized spaces.
These relics of the Raj however, in the recent years, have seen an evolution that is in keeping with New India, with its liberalised economy. The new aristocracy in this India is peopled by senior officials employed in the finance and IT sector. These are not necessarily members of the old elite, but are instead an upwardly mobile section of society that has benefited from the capitalist leaning economy that has existed since 1991. Many of them are inhabitants of new suburbs like Gurgaon, with its glass and steel office buildings and gated communities. While the older Gymkhana clubs may be closed to them, newer clubs such as the City Club in DLF City, Gurgaon, offer them a chance to experience similar privileges. However, there are some interesting differences that draw attention to a larger phenomenon at play.
The City Club is owned by private real estate developer, Delhi Leasing and Finance, better known as DLF. This company is responsible for developing high end residential localities such as Hauz Khas and Green Park in South Delhi, and also for being the first to focus its attention to the small, rural setup that was Gurgaon. Developed first as Qutub enclave, Gurgaon was marketed as “south of South Delhi” in the 80’s. The boom arrived in the 90’s, after liberalisation, with a number of multinational companies looking at it as an alternative to expensive and crowded Connaught Place. Large office blocks came up and, with them, two kinds of residents in Gurgaon – the permanent residents who bought plots or flats and the floating population of MNC employees with transferable jobs. DLF earmarked land for schools, hospitals, malls and, most significantly, for clubs, recognizing that New Gurgaon residents would aspire to the exclusive privileges that club memberships offered. What was once an ancient, largely agrarian village has evolved into this modern-day avatar and the City Club exemplifies this metamorphosis.
DLF lured potential clients by offering club membership at discounted rates to owners of plots and flats. MNCs also purchased bulk memberships to offer as perks to their employees. Therefore, the profile of the average club member is largely uniform- below 50, well educated, familiar with and demanding all the privileges of an upwardly mobile lifestyle. In fact, it is a cross section of the typical New Gurgaon resident who would probably never have had access to the Gymkhana clubs but who also demanded a swankier version of their dilapidated, colonial grandeur. The club itself is a 5-star version of the traditional club, set in environs that underline all that it stands for- the elite private school, Shri Ram, and gated communities such as Hamilton Court and Regency Park. Cut off from the world around it, the club’s high walls, security cameras, guards at entries demanding ID, manicured gardens and swimming pools emphasize the exclusivity it stands for. A sterile interior that echoes the opulence of the old clubs with impressive furniture, plush upholstery, starched table linen- the sybaritic atmosphere is a mark that the club member has “arrived”.
Just as visible are the neighbouring urban villages of Chakkarpur and Nathupur, their existence a reminder of Old Gurgaon that is gradually disappearing to make way for the rarefied and private world of New Gurgaon. While New Gurgaon is actively disengaged from its surroundings, the employees who work at the clubs as waiters, bellhops and cleaning staff are usually from these urban villages. Lakshman, a waiter at the club, says, “Though I will never be able to use the club, at least I am able to earn a living because of it.” However, this sentiment is not shared by Mohan, who reveals, “The money I make is hardly enough to sustain the high cost of living in and around Chakkarpur, where I stay. This was not so 20 years ago.”
Mathew Zachariah, former Vice President of Interglobe Enterprises, who once enjoyed a company membership at City Club candidly comments, “Big companies don’t care about issues like displacement and inflated cost of living for the financially weak. That is not part of the job description. Their operational logic is to lure clients with deep pockets. I myself enjoy taking my family out for a swim or occasional weekend brunch. I have to confess; the social and economic repercussions are the last thing on my mind.” This also makes us ask, should personal preference be questioned?
The membership to clubs and the manner in which virtual space plays a significant role in our lifestyles and evolution of spaces, shows that man, though unable to isolate himself completely, requires the option of being able to choose between several alternatives, such as where and who he socializes with, and the possibility of sometimes being able to escape from the daily grind. The desire for club membership and the exclusivity which it confers is only an example of a growing phenomenon that is a result of the overcrowded nature of cities. While truly democratic spaces have no restriction on how many people enjoy its facilities, the overall experience is uncomfortable and hardly pleasurable to most people. The question is- how will these developments shape the cities of tomorrow? While the economy may enjoy unprecedented success on the surface, the gulf between the affluent and needy will widen, leading to friction between them. This will, in turn, incite a sense of resentment from the poor and a suspicious attitude towards the poor from the rich. Crime will spiral. Gated communities, secluded clubs and other such privatized spaces will be regarded as essential. A vicious cycle is born.