Paying with lives for free parking

Blood bath over parking has not influenced the politics of the city to deliver on the right principles

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Tuesday 01 April 2014

Blood bath over parking has not influenced the politics of the city to deliver on the right principles

“Man shot dead over parking in outer Delhi,” screams the headline. This is the third incident in a row this year, inflating the brutal statistics mounting over time. I don’t know if the government is even tracking the spate of killings, injuries and violent neighourhood brawls over parking in Delhi. It had started with the shocking incident in south Delhi’s posh Panchsheel Park a few years ago, where a resident sustained bullet injury after his neighbour attacked him for parking right outside his gate. But such incidents have now spread beyond rich neighbourhoods to middle- and low-income colonies and commercial areas as public land is being run over by four- and two-wheelers and gun-toting “bullet rajas”.

Is this only a crime story or a mobility story?

This lawlessness has not set off an alarm in the city nor a search for its solution. Look at the viciousness and number of such incidents. In December 2009, a factory owner in central Delhi’s Anand Parbat area was killed in a scuffle that broke out over parking. In January 2012 a former Delhi Police home guard opened fire on a watchman over parking in Punjabi Bagh in west Delhi. In April 2012, an autorickshaw driver was beaten to death by his neighbours in Geeta Colony for parking outside their house. In September 2012, an argument over parking in Kalkaji in South Delhi led to the murder of a property dealer. Same year, two persons were stabbed by their tenants in Munirka in south Delhi after arguments over parking. In December 2013, a taxi driver was injured after he was shot outside the Delhi Police headquarters at Indraprastha Estate due to enmity over parking. A month ago, a student was killed outside an educational institution in Karkardooma in east Delhi while trying to park.

Bait of free and subsidised parking

All these incidents are reported in the crime pages of newspapers as recalcitrant criminal acts of individuals. News does not make the connection between the heinous acts and growing trend towards appropriation of public space for free and unrestricted use.

This paints vivid and gory images of parking mayhem that Tom Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why we drive the way we do, equates with jungle laws. “Humans hunt for parking the way animals hunt for food,” he says. It is a life and death decision for the prey. This “barn owl and a condor” syndrome dominates the foraging question in urban space but with heartless viciousness.

In the heart of this is the bait of free and subsidised parking that is offered with no restrictions, planning and enforcement. For parking, use of public space becomes undemocratic—grab whenever, wherever and forever. But all other public activities—be it vending, rallies, advertisements or social events for temporary use at least need some kind of permission, or payment or order of organisation or rights as given by vending laws. But parking rules are minimal in commercial and mixed-use areas and non-existent in residential areas.

Free parking fans this self-righteous conceit to make exclusive claims over public space and roads by silencing and excluding the interest of the majority. Land needed for parking in Delhi is now twice as much than that under poor people’s slums. This social inequity, erosion of urban commons and declining liveability will only worsen with additional parking demand from new cars—as large as 310 football fields a year. The government is rapidly losing powers to negotiate the right of all other users of public spaces and roads and establish fair terms for all.

Insular politics

The ruling political parties in Delhi never had the guts to ruffle the status quo and the opposition party in municipalities only believed in largess in terms of minimal pricing to free parking. This tension around parking needs to catapult the debate to a much larger question around the use of public space, its design, rights of users, and the cost of using a car. What will change in this election to set the new principles and terms for managing the urban commons and public spaces—the new generation urban challenge? This is different from the conventional electoral sops of bijli, paani and sadak (electricity, water and roads). Clearly, politicians cannot promise unlimited parking to restless neighbourhoods. The rules of the game have changed—parking policy is now expected to be a lever to reduce dependency on cars.

It is not that policy discussions have not picked up anything at all. We have seen attempts to propose rules for parking enforcement and design, management and parking pricing. Even some feeble push has been made for principles of limiting parking provision, planning on a neghbourhood scale, and faint murmur of market-based pricing, to change travel choices and protect and improve democratic access to public spaces. But these principles have not percolated enough to influence public conversation and opinion and become a strong buzz to counter the obsession with blocking and encroaching to find space for “my car”. It has certainly not influenced the politics of the city to deliver on the right principles.

Yet some land-starved and conflicted neighbourhoods and apartment buildings in Delhi that cannot postpone the day of the reckoning any more have started to self-organise—drawing up self-rules, demarcating parking spaces, even charging for multiple ownership of cars or not allowing parking of second or third car within the neighbourhood limit.

Our politicians cannot remain insular and indifferent to the stress and tension in neighbourhoods and disregard the holistic solutions to mobility. Currently, all that is politically understood is the business-led approach of spot fixing in busy commercial areas where private sector is encouraged to retrofit multi-level car parks also housing shopping malls in isolation from all else. They do not understand other opportunities for the land, its revenue potential and the larger benefit of managing, restricting and pricing parking.  This has endangered rational policy making and is only worsening the situation.

Our electoral debate shies away from discussing the new generation urban questions around liveability—democratic access to public spaces and urban commons, equity and rights of road users and access for all. Yet in the rapidly growing urban India this will affect the very last person and influence the last mile of urban politics.

The blood bath over parking is only symptomatic of the failure of the political class to understand this truth.


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