The Production of Public

Prasad Shetty & Rupali Gupte, April 2011

The idea of ‘public’ is central to urban planning. Most decisions in planning processes are taken in the name of ‘the public’. Public infrastructure, public spaces, public amenities, etc. are commonly used terms in the planners’ vocabulary. Public here is agreed as ‘all people’ or ‘everybody’. There is an ‘entirety’ promised in the idea of the public, which is understood to be a clear entity. As any ambiguity or complications in the idea of public would destabilize planning, conceptual discussions on this subject are taboo for the discipline.  Hence there is a conceptual closure of the idea, where the public explicitly means a definite entity. The messy urban conditions of Mumbai provide a clear illustration of how opening up the idea of public would destabilize planning processes. For instance, in the design of streets, certain width is considered to accommodate pedestrians and vehicles. However, a street in the city of Mumbai is often used and claimed in multiple ways – hawkers put their stalls, shops extend their boundaries, new shops get created, etc. Slowly, the street converts itself to a shopping place. Being unable to accommodate the new activities, the street gets congested and becomes an instance of the failure of the plan. While making the plan, the planner assumes the street to be a public space (infrastructure) – to be used by all people – but only for walking and driving. The planner assumes the public to be pedestrians and car drivers who have no claims over the road, but use it to pass through. The planner can only handle such clearly defined and closed ideas of the public (without claims) for designing the street. Any attempt in conceptual opening-up of the idea would make the situation unhandleable for the planner. A closer material examination of how streets get worked out as public spaces would clarify the difficulties in handling the conceptual opening up.

Planning uses the language of cartography to define and recognize property using points, lines and polygons, which represent positions, edges and bounded spaces respectively. In defining and recognising property, polygons with clear boundaries are used along with a record of rights (that connects each polygon with a name of the owner). Any change in the polygons (and hence property) can only take place through elaborate administrative and legal processes of amalgamation and subdivisions. Property defined through cartography needs clear polygons with stable edges. The street is typically defined as space between polygons, which is not claimed by anyone (but the state). The clearly defined ‘public’ of the planner is supposed to use this space to pass through and do nothing else. But if the idea of the public is to be opened up to include the claims of hawkers, informal occupiers and other claimants, then an unstable condition is expected where the positions change, edges mutate and spaces morph as these claims are not fixed and clear.  The clarity of cartography has an inherent inability to deal with such instabilities of positions, edges and spaces – and hence planning is unable to deal with it. It takes years to change the polygons of property in the cartographic map – on the street it happens every hour. Recognizing such unclear claims hence becomes unhandleable for the planner as there is no language to deal with it. The idea of the public is also not opened up to include the claims for another reason – it would mean recognizing the claims and installing a degree of formality to them. This would be in contradiction with the property regimes in the city and the state will be unable to deal with such contradictions. Hence in many ways, the planner is forced not to recognize such claims and use a closed idea of the public for making the plan.

In the above discussion, the imagination of the planner forges a public which includes only pedestrians and car drivers. The entirety promised in the idea of the public is not possible on ground. Hence, the idea of the public is not an established ‘entirety’, but rather a production (in this case, by the planner) for a specific purpose (in this case, to make a plan). The paper contends that the idea of ‘public’ is a production / imagination rather than being an established condition – it is produced for various reasons – as an object for consumption, as an ethic, as a space, and also as a strategy. This contention is the starting point for this paper, which aims at discussing the multiple ways in which the ‘public’ gets produced.

Public as object

 A conceptual closing of the idea of the public produces the public as an object – for easy consumption. In the above discussion, the planner produces the ‘public’ as a homogenous mass (of pedestrians and car drivers), with singular needs (of passing through). This public is an object – to be consumed to make plans. The production of public as an object is best captured in the practices of public art.

There is a recent surge in the art practices concerned with the public. There are typically three ways in which these practices work out. The first one is where the artist takes up the cause of the disadvantaged, oppressed and the exploited. The typical modus operandi is to bare the facts about the disadvantage, exploitation and oppression and present it to the world in creative ways expecting creation of large scale outrage against the advantage takers, the exploiters and the oppressors. In this case the whole purpose of art is to make it useful for a cause. The second one is slightly different in its intensions – these are the practices that get fascinated with material that is so to say ‘unusual’. The modes of operation in these practices include – getting into the depth of such material, knowing about it and doing something with it – here the question is not how art becomes useful to the cause; but rather, how the unusual material becomes useful to art. Various kinds of archiving practices are examples of this category of practice. However, the most vulgar form of this kind is the engagement with remote communities (tribals for instance) and then work with them and bring their art to the city to be shown in the gallery space. The third ones are works that expect the public to engage with it. These could be in form of objects installed within the gallery or outside in the city; or could even be performances, workshops etc that are done with the ‘public’. The intentions here include provoking the public, sensitizing it, or even simply expecting a response from unusual interventions in urban spaces.

The interrogation of relationships between the artist, the art object and the public open the problems in this kind of art. The questions, who is the public? What is the relationship of the artist with the public? What does such art do to the public? Does the public require such art? What happens when this art is sold? etc. emerge when such an interrogation is undertaken. The interrogation also reinforces the contention that the public is produced as an object in these kinds of works. The public is either represented in the art, or engaged with while making the art, or is expected to engage with the art as it is produced or after it is produced. The public however remains external to the artist and the art object. The art is either for, about or by the public. The artist becomes a representative, interpreter, employer or curator of the public, but seldom part of the public. This externalization of the public makes it into an object to be consumed – by being represented, spoken about, employed or curated. While these works claim to be public art, they end up producing the public as an object.

Public as ethic

The 1974 Bollywood blockbuster ‘Roti’ (directed by Manmohan Desai) has a song on the idea of public. Written by Anand Bakshi, the song is sung by Kishore Kumar and enacted by Rajesh Khanna. The opening lyrics, “yeh jo public hai, ye sab jaanti hai, aji andar kya hai, aji bahar kya hai, ye sab kuchh pehchaanti hai” (This public, it is aware of everything, whatever is inside, whatever is outside, it recognizes everything), themselves bestow an almost eternal ‘all knowing’ characterization to the idea of public.  In the video, Rajesh Khannna walks along with a large crowd of people, but looks out of the screen talking to the audience and explaining the concept of public. The song is shot is three locations – a street with a procession, a public meeting and a park, clearly identifying with the popular understanding of the public. Along with the image and notions about the idea of the public, the song also encapsulates the power associated with it – power of encompassing knowledge about everything.  The video of the song suggests the source of this power, which is the crowd. Rajesh Khanna acts simultaneously on behalf of the crowd and as a part of the crowd. Throughout the song he is involved in exposing many secrets of people. The suggestion that nothing escapes the many eyes of this crowd is amply (though simplistically) clarified. Here the public is produced as a watchdog, a guardian of truth, the bearer of knowledge, and a magnanimous whole above an individual. The individual is not only being watched by the public, but is also accountable / answerable to the public. Public here is produced as an ethic.

The production of public as an ethic could be best described through the activities of media. The high-decibled and aggressive television anchors of Indian news channels are generally seen pushing the politician / bureaucrat by repeatedly stating, “today the public wants an answer … …” Although annoyed, the politicians / bureaucrats respond in the defensive trying to explain their position. However, they never ask the question, “Who are you to ask that question?” or “Who is the public?” Public here is not only produced as a set of people, but more as an ethic that cannot be challenged. In another instance, a few years ago, the government banned women dancers in the bars of Mumbai stating that it was creating an immoral condition in the city. A small group of people opposed the ban arguing that the bars provided livelihood to the women and that such a ban would force the dancers into starvation or prostitution. The media conducted opinion polls asking people if they supported the ban and continuously flashed the results of the poll – an overwhelming majority of the people who took the poll supported the ban. Using the form of an opinion poll, the media had produced a public that was for the ban and which corroborated the government’s position of bar dancing being an immoral activity. Here again the media produced the public as an ethic.

Public as space

The trains of Mumbai carry about six million people every day. The basic unit of a train is a seat. Three seats make a row. Two rows are arranged facing each other. The gap between the two rows is efficiently designed such that when people sit there is just about three inch space between the knees of persons sitting opposite each other. Four such sets of rows are arranged to make one bay with a gangway between the rows. The doors of the compartments occur between the bays. Three bays make a compartment. Each train has nine to fourteen compartments. Each twelve-compartment train with a seating capacity of about eight hundred and sixty persons carries more than four and a half thousand persons during peak hours. A recent transportation survey by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority recorded that during peak hours, the highest density spot in the Mumbai local train has sixteen persons per square meter floor area. While this occurs between the two bays near the doors of the train, the inner areas with seats have better conditions. High discipline is followed to manage the crowd. Four persons sit in a row with three seats. The fourth person cannot sit on the seat straight as there is no space so he / she sits perpendicular to the direction of the seat such that only a part of his / her behind rests on the seat and the remaining part of the body spills out into the gangway. People carefully occupy the spaces between the legs of the seated passengers to stand. Three such persons generally occupy the spaces between the two rows of seats. Getting into and out of the train is managed with utmost discipline such that one part of the door is left for people to get in and the other part is from where people get out. As spaces between the bays near the doors are extremely crowded, some people have to travel standing on the doorway (the train’s doors are never closed), such that they have only parts of their feet inside the train and rest of the body hangs out. They hinge themselves with their hands griping some pole or rod of the train’s interior. However as this is the best spot to get fresh air, a lot of people prefer to occupy the doorway. These people get off and on during every stop of the train to allow others to exit and enter. Persons not familiar with the disciplines of the crowd, first get rebuked by others for their ignorance, but later helped to get accommodated. Men and women have different compartments to travel.

Journeys generally vary between forty five minutes to an hour and a half hours. As journeys are long, people make friends on the way. These friends meet and prefer to travel together at the same time every day. A group gets formed like this, which follows a definite time to board the train. Such groups board only specific trains coming at a specific time. For example the group travelling by 08.57 am train will not only travel by the 08.57 am train every day, but also use the same compartment or sometimes even the same bay. People belonging to a group find it easy to board the train as they are generally helped by the others. Seats are exchanged between people sitting and standing after half the journey. Throughout the journey, the friends talk, tease each other, share food, and sometimes also sing songs. Today every train (and sometimes more than one compartment in a single train) between 06.30 am to 10.30 am in the morning has an organized singing group that sings devotional songs. These groups also return in the same manner in the evenings, but in the evenings however they sing all kinds of songs – usually from Bollywood. The compartments with such singing groups attract more people as they provide a good source of entertainment and are significantly more crowded than other compartments of the same train. The group has its own dynamics – leaderships are assumed, conflicts are resolved, problems are addressed, etc. New social configurations come into existence. These configurations make spaces in the journey livable and even enjoyable despite being extremely uncomfortable. These are spaces where an important part of social life is lived – this is the most important public space of Mumbai. Here it is not the physical place that produces a public space, but it is the travelers and their travel, which produces a public as space – to be occupied by themselves and others. Their songs could be considered public art – being produced by the public for themselves. The artists, the art and the public are all one here. This is public as space.

In the production of public as space, the idea of the private is not in traditional opposition with the idea of public. On the other hand, many privates contribute in the making of this public (as a space). In fact, such an idea of the private (as a sub set of the public and not as a contrast to the public) seems more relevant in confirmation with the idea of public being an ‘entirety’ and meaning ‘everybody’.

Public as strategy

In mid 2003, leading newspapers of Mumbai carried articles stating that the government had allotted a piece of land in Bandra (a suburb of Mumbai) to certain developers. The newspapers also mentioned that the developers intended to develop commercial and residential real-estate on it. This land was marked as a recreational ground in the Development Plan (the Master Plan) of the city and belonged to the Housing Authority. Due to its location, this piece of land was prime property and was valued at Rs. 200 Crores in the year 2003. Disturbed by the news, the Residents’ Association of the neighboring apartments decided to approach the Bombay High Court with a plea for maintaining the use of this land as a recreational ground. The members of the Association were inspired by the case of Oval Maidan (another recreational ground in South Mumbai). The Oval Residents’ Association had fought a court case, where they argued that the Maidan (large open space) was under severe threat of abuse and misuse as the Municipal Corporation was unable to maintain it. They also insisted that the responsibility of maintaining it should be handed over to the Oval Residents’ Association. The Mumbai High Court had instructed the Resident’s Association to prove their capacity in a pilot period of one year to organise resources and improve the Maidan. Subsequently the Residents’ Association, with the help of several private groups upgraded the open space. They made several small interventions: fenced the area, leveled the open space for efficient drainage, demarcated areas for different purposes and appointed several private agencies to use and maintain the area. With the success of the first year, the court asked the Municipal Corporation to hand over the maintenance of the Maidan to the Oval Residents’ Association.

The Residents’ Association from Bandra approached an urban research group to help them with their intensions. They asked the research group to prepare a two part document – the first part containing arguments for the court case towards keeping the space open and not allowing the government to hand it over to a private developer; and the second part with designs for improvement of the open space and  (organizational and financial) plans to maintain it. This document was not only being prepared for the court, but was also for the private parties who were to invest in the development of the area as well as for the various state and private institutions whose blessings were required for the development of the space. The Residents’ Association wanted to prepare itself to take over the open space like the case of Oval Maidan.

The research group strategized the first part containing arguments for the court case around the ideas of public space. It made a detailed report, empirically proving the shortage of ‘public open space’ in the area and the need to keep this place open for public use. So far this was simple. However things became complicated in the second part. The research group started the project with a detailed survey of the space and the community that was going to use it. They found that a part of the space was being occupied by a small informal settlement. Also the open space was used by the dwellers of this settlement as well as other informal settlements in the neighborhood. There were also other users of the open space like occasional hawkers who sold their wares around the open space. Part of the open space was rented for exhibitions and other community activities like marriages. On the other hand the interviews with the members of the Residents’ Association of the apartments indicated that they wanted to open space for environmental reasons (of ecological balance, ventilation, and breathing space) and also for cultural reasons (like for recreational purposes and social and cultural gatherings). They were specifically concerned about the elderly and the children. A number of them did not have a problem with the land being developed into “congruent activities” like Gymnasium, Sports Centre, Exhibition hall, Community Hall, Library, Swimming Pool, Theatre, etc. The entire group however was unanimous about their dislikes – they did not like the “slum-dwellers and hawkers” using the open space and felt that parcelling the land for other activities like exhibition and marriages was a public nuisance. The Residents’ Association insisted that the space be developed as a public space and non-congruent activities (like informal settlements, hawking, community activities, etc.) should not be allowed. They wanted the research group to develop the project with all these demands.

The research group entered into a dilemma – while it was the research group itself that had produced the idea of the public as a strategy to save the open space from predatory developers; the idea of the public was high jacked and reproduced by the Residents’ Association to evict the informal settlers from the open space. The idea of the ‘public’ was produced as a strategy, but was double edged – while it was useful against appropriation, it was also problematic, when used as an intolerant/indiscriminate instrument.

Though the paper identifies a few ways in which the idea of public gets produced, there may be many more ways in which this production must be taking place. The intention of this paper is not to enlist all the ways in which the public gets produced – there cannot be such an exhaustive list. Rather the intention is to first, open up the idea of public itself as being produced; and secondly, operationalise this opening up in the urban condition of Mumbai to trace some of the conceptual trajectories in which the production of public takes place.


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