There is an eccentric power that words possess, that we so often use them in the most extraordinary sense, and still act sceptic to their connotations. From their nature of being self-contained to act as elements of totalities in the form of sentences, their meaning systems are highly convoluted. These convolutions are ingrained within the processes of perceptions, meanings, associations, binaries, and classifications.
The question: “Who does the public in public safety at public space refer to?”, sets a direct inquiry of the word “public” in the range of its spectrum within the larger totality. That is, it frames some significant questions that when speaking of public safety, whose safety are we concerned about followed by sub-questions like what do we exactly mean by safety, and is the nature of safety similar for all those who belong to the street, and ultimately if it’s assuredly safety that we are speaking about?
Streets are not neutral and constant instead divergent and dynamic, because they turn places from spaces with every known-unknown human interaction that happens within them. These interactions are temporal yet persistent in nature. These are fairly visible in various forms within streets from that eye contact that a pedestrian would make with the driver on road to speed up while walking because that becomes the point of the only negotiation between the speed of his vehicle and one’s footsteps to stand still in queue for multiple hours.
The streets are full of interactions, and not solely human interactions but interactions of multiple phenomena, as there is no sequence to its nature unlike its design, the road seems straight like a line with a collection of multiple points, points of initiation, and destination. But in the very being of it, it is a complex network like those tangled wires that runs on the upper edge.
These interactions within the streets become the basis of Jane Jacobs’ eyes on the street theory where she states: “There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.”
In the context of Indian Streets, a significant amount of these proprietors belong to a certain kind of group, the people who are almost always there on the street, the vendors and hawkers who earn their livelihood through and within the streets. These people are ordinarily available in the larger crowds, acting as informal surveillance to ensure the “safety” of the larger “public”. Safety as it might appear by the objective lens of its definition is a state of being free from violence. This establishes that safety is not an object instead it is a theory but one that reciprocates another problematic idea of solely crime prevention in a certain space.
But it becomes vital to the discussion of safety and especially to public safety to understand that safety can be physical and metaphorical, in the very sense of security lies the idea of safety.
The city grants or denies the sense of belongingness to its various citizens, most of these eyes that are most of these people on the street are considered to be informal because of the status of their legality. There is a definite distinction between the people from formal and informal settlements in Indian cities, the latter is always on the verge of insecurities because there exists a sense of uncertainty when the subjectivity of the eye on the street changes. That is, the vendor becomes a perpetual eye to ensure the safety of a certain group of people that the city prioritizes, but when this view of the eye goes to the agencies of state with specific power, the same eyes of the streets are subjected to insecurities and vulnerability of being removed. The shift in subjectivity holds the capacity to change the nature of the phenomena, and hence within the whole discourse-the safety changed into surveillance.
Michael Foucault explains it the best, with his idea of Panopticon, he explains how society has been changing its roots from Sovereign Power to Disciplinary Power, where control is not practiced through the threat of force but by the idea of monitoring and surveillance of the population. He suggests: “Surveillance is permanent in its effects, even if it is discontinuous in its action”. This idea of surveillance assigns roles and identities, sometimes to materials and sometimes to humans. But with these assigned identities and roles we presume and set the context of those assigned. We assume that those who act as surveillance do not need surveillance or safety.
Because safety is subjected to space and person, it cannot be determined until the specificities of its context are known. These theories of mixed land use, eyes on the street, and permeability need the context of subjectivity. Because each person has their safety within a space and a special set of conditions. This implies that safety is often misconceptualized with surveillance, and the public as a prefix is limited to certain people and not to the totality of its spectrum as it appears.
Almost every (extra)ordinary man would claim that “they belong to the city, to the street”, but when delving deeper into the foundations of these claims, there could be a rumoured possibility.
- JACOB, J. (1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
- FOUCAULT, M. (1995). Discipline and punish: the birth of the prison. New York, Vintage Books.
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