The first public park that I ever accessed in my life is the one in front of Indira Ideal School in Janak Puri, New Delhi. My parents took us to that park ever since we could walk. Even when we had to cross two big sewage drains to get there. We never lived in Janak Puri. It was unaffordable. Probably still is. Perhaps even more. But that did not deter us.
This is also the park where boys went to play cricket on Sundays, where women went in groups to socialize, and where men went joined groups to do laughter yoga, or do group morning walks. This is also the park that girls from our part of the world went through on their way to the government school from their homes, which were again across one or two wide open sewage drains.
Fortunately, most of the time, the drains did not come in the way of friendship between the people from ourside and those from theirs. My mother too was welcome in the group of women that included richer aunties from Janak Puri. The difference in affluence was not made blatantly explicit. People knew about it, and that was it. They still exercised together, sang together, yoga together, and occasionally ate together.
Something changed in over last two years – beginning around the time of covid. The Janak Puri Community decided to categorically deny access to the Indira Ideal School Park to anyone outside Janak Puri. And more specifically to those from Raghu Nagar, Sagar Pur, Vashish Park, Dabri – essentially all the ones from this side of the drains. Walls were raised and gates were locked. The fact that sewage drains are not as ugly as a decade ago and that the hideousness of those open sewage drains has been covered by concrete roads did not counter the doubts and fears of Janak Puri people when it came to life and death situation created by covid. Adversity often clouds the judgment of people and fear takes over. They strongly believed that we from this side of the road (not drain anymore) are more likely the carriers of coronavirus because we were less hygienic. We are a threat to their lives.
For almost two years, my mother and father had no access to those parks. Even when lockdowns were eased off and some movement was allowed, my parents still were home-bound. No wonder they admired the harsh Canadian cold more than warmer Delhi winters because in Toronto, they were free to go anywhere and their Pincode or income status did not determine where they would be welcome. There was already loneliness for them during covid because of less home or indoor visits of neighbors and relatives. It got only worse by this denial of access to open space of the park where my parents could still meet others in a covid safe space. For old and retired people like my parents, parks really are their daily social haven. But somehow, people in Janak Puri were ignorant of this social, mental, and physical need of many like my parents or probably felt that these needs mattered more to them.
Now, when many people in Delhi are vaccinated and people are less worried, the seniors of our part of the world are even more eager to come. Seeing this demand, the people of Janak Puri melted their hearts as much as allowing them to come to the park only between 5AM and 7AM. They want them gone by 7. Their hearts are swelling with the pride for this favor they have done. Around 7AM, one Sikh guy, who claims to be “Mayor of Janak Puri” or some Pradhan, begins to hound the women away. Then women go to some other makeshift park to talk more and count their beads or do their chanting. In fact, the physical access in terms of unlocking the gates or dropping the walls has not been put in place. Some patches of Janak Puri boundary have naturally crumbled and my mother’s friends climb the crushed boundary wall to get in there.
How have countless men, women, and youth of our area just accepted this? Public parks come under municipal government, which in this case is MCD and I am not aware of any law that defines access to these parks based on the pin codes of the visitors. Some Janak Puri folks claim that they pay maintenance fees for the parks and these dirty people from Sagar Pur and Dabri come to enjoy the benefits. How have my parents’ friends, neighbors, and relatives, who otherwise want to nuke Pakistan or Muslims through their WhatsApp forwards, not questioned this access denial?
From so far away, here in Toronto, I feel helpless and despaired when I hear these stories from my mother. One of the key reasons I left India was the frustration I got in fighting so many battles with governments and just hitting the wall. I have been advised countless times to pick my battles for my own sanity and focus on a few. But why has no one on the ground picked up this battle? It’s been almost three years now that I have been hearing of the access suspension, can someone please pick up this battle, please?