Spatial Democracy and the Revival of Urban Commons in India
by Dhanya Rajagopal
“Commoning has to do with difference, not commonality, it should always be expanding those who can participate.” - Stavros Stavrides
“Sharing is caring” is not just a commercial tagline. It in essence summarizes why urban commons in India lack the care and value that they truly deserve. Abandoned or misused, rescuing these vital spaces from the mercy of top-down structures could save our cities and the values of democracy they enshrine. What if there existed a new way of co-ownership where the people in a neighbourhood collectively revive, sustain, and safeguard the resources in urban areas that are increasingly privatised?
Urban Commons represent spaces that involve collective appropriation and repurposing of public space and urban resources that are ‘open and spontaneous’ yet ‘structured’. These can also be historic and naturally occurring landscapes in cities, such as maidans, chowks, wetlands, beaches, and even streets. In recent times, the country has seen widespread threats to both types of urban commons — disrupting the fundamental principles of sustainability, environmental justice, and democratic expression. Reviving the commons also has a direct implication on the rural-urban migration in India. There have been successful initiatives that save common land for small farmers as well as securing the right to the city for the working poor in big cities. However, such initiatives have hardly been adopted as bottom-up development models by the local governments, many of which find themselves dependent on centralized governance and private institutions to back and fund their initiatives. Consequently, they instead try to emulate a superficial “cleaned up” or “beautified” version of public spaces — thereby, inhibiting their usability. Spaces that are privatized in such a manner exclude many groups, such as the “differently-abled, migrant workers and vendors, rather than providing a collective third space.”
In his widely cited work The Right to The City, David Harvey posits that the right to the city is as much a right to change the urban fabric as it is to experience the change as a citizen. When applied to the revival of urban commons, proactive involvement of citizens ensures this reclamation of the space. To facilitate this, our cities need an institutional and personal emphasis on the collective action of our commonly held urban landscapes. In this article, I explore the notion of ‘commoning’ as an expression of strengthened spatial democracy in Indian cities as two broad themes of civic spaces and ecological reclamation.
Ecological Democracy and the Neglect of Commons
The literature on environmental democracy asks if it is possible to ensure environmental sustainability under the current structures of democracy, which are inadequate “to deliver the urgent large-scale collective action needed to tackle environmental problems". The threat to shared resources has been a point of contention for different groups and is a recurring theme in the nature of protests in India that is pushing investment and infrastructure development at the behest of environmental justice. Over the past few decades, several collective movements and campaigns have emerged in the country’s coastal cities to bring light to this blatant disregard for what rightfully belongs to us. Art, music, and celebration seem to be the common ways these campaigns reach audiences far and wide. While the satirical ‘Poromboke Paadal’, by Carnatic musician T.M Krishna cuts through the elite sections of Chennai, bringing attention to the fact that the ‘commons’ belongs to all of us, Kodaikanal Won’t by Sofia Ashraf, went viral demanding action against Unilever Pvt. Ltd. for causing mercury pollution. ‘Poramboke’, a Tamil word, originally referred to as “land outside of revenue records” is now a colloquial slur for wastelands, reflecting the value attached to their current misuse. They held a special cultural and social significance that is no longer in practice.
Fishing communities across Tamil Nadu, successfully brought to attention the dumping of industrial pollutants in Ennore creek by The North Chennai Thermal Power Station, EID Parry, Coromandel Cement, and Kothari Fertilisers, despite a mandate by the National Green Tribunal prohibiting it. The recognition of customary rights and collective action that has sustained these landscapes for generations are disregarded by coastal policies. A multi-tier mechanism for coastal resource management stemming from the ground-up would significantly contribute to their livelihoods and ecological benefits, as Ostrom’s study on Common Pool Resources revealed.
Spontaneous creation of protest spaces as Urban Commons
On 14 December 2019, a large group of Muslim women staged a sit-in, in New Delhi, using non-violent resistance that lasted 101 days, following the announcement to implement the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in November. The streets of Shaheen Bhag, in Delhi, the capital of India, will be forever altered as a place that cradled the longest protest movement in the history of modern India. Joined by a mosaic of Muslim women, children, and people across religion and caste, the protests displayed solidarity through a variety of peaceful demonstrations, such as communal cooking, poetry reading, singing, and reciting the Constitution. An informal collective, Friends of Shaheen Bagh, sprung from this movement, welcoming all and “urging dialogue instead of violence”. Many more Shaheen Bhag inspired sit-ins sprouted across the country, extending into the days of the COVID lockdown in late March. Volunteers set up makeshift toilets, medical camps, and vendors provided chai and snacks. A bus stop was converted into a crowdsourced library, and a cultural event, called “Artists Against Communalism”, was hosted in February, amidst growing agitation against the peaceful protestors.
As radical as it might sound, what these protest movements and many others in the past have shown, is the ability of large groups of people to self-organize over shared values, leading to the occupation and the temporary reclaiming of a city’s streets into urban commons. This reclamation also highlights how the inequitable distribution of the city’s public space, together with a densely packed built fabric, devoids unauthorised neighborhoods like Shaheen Bagh, opportunities to create urban commons for community welfare, or even voicing dissent. Don Mitchel, in his book, The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, describes the struggles for public space as ‘struggles over the practice of democracy’ and highlights how changes or loss of public space affect how city residents experience and participate in public life. Although it might seem insignificant, how cities are designed can make or break a protest. Peter Schwartztein, explains this with the example of car-centric planning in LA, wherein low urban density and limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility, and hence, the momentum they need to sustain mass participation.
The SC ruling that made it clear that ‘protests must be carried out in designated areas only’ and not through the occupation of public spaces, wields further control over the nature of dissent spaces. Inconvenience is part of the idea of public protest to garner larger attention for the cause. Arguably, as if the prevailing structural ghettoization inflicted upon the residents of neighborhoods like Shaheen Bagh wasn’t enough, the absence of urban commons further adds to their burdens.
Can we leverage spatial democracy to ascertain our right to commons?
In Naples, Italy, a general urban-commons transition plan for cities is underway, exploring new forms of public-commons partnerships. Developed by P2P-Foundation, this includes the creation of a Department of Commons and legal recognition of the protection of ‘commons’ as a fundamental right, leading to a widespread renewal of abandoned buildings into housing and socio-economic spaces.
In a growing digital age, spatial democracy often manifests as digital commons where new collaborations can be sought to address issues. However, our cities fundamentally lack the data to make informed decisions. The digital commons concept in Jakarta took into consideration the fact that the city had one of the highest concentrations of active Twitter users in the world. This led to crowdsourced flood data on PetaJakarta, an open-source platform in collaboration with Twitter, Jakarta Emergency Management Agency, and the University of Wollongong. Such initiatives can incite both the structural and behavioural changes, which are integral to breathing a new life into the lost third-quarter of our cities.
India is currently home to one of the youngest populations in the world with 64 percent of the population under the age of 35. To keep up with the changing political and economic aspirations of this young country and cultivate civic culture, our policies need to acknowledge and scale-up participatory governance and collective ownership. An ideal milestone of maturity should therefore also reflect in the spatial culture and production of cities. Reviving the urban commons involves integrating the concept of natural, secular as well as cultural spaces, with the everyday life and shared values of people. It means providing avenues for sustained, creative, and collective local economies — an alternative model that truly reflects a 21st-century democracy.
 Jonathan Pickering, Karin Bäckstrand & David Schlosberg, Between environmental and ecological democracy: theory and practice at the democracy-environment nexus, Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning (2020), 22:1, 1-15, DOI: 10.1080/1523908X.2020.1703276
 Don Mitchell, The Right to the City Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space, Wordpress (2019)
About the author: Dhanya is the Programme Director of Public Landscape and Urbanism Studio (PLUS), a collaborative practice based in India and the United States. She is a trained architect and placemaking expert interested in participatory research and community-based design.
Editorial Team: Hamza Abdullah and Amrutha Viswanath Graphics Team: Rizwan Ahmad Khan and Amrutha Viswanath