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Indian couples meet by the Arabian Sea in Mumbai on June 11, 2008.Pal
Indian couples meet by the Arabian Sea in Mumbai.

On Marine Drive, a popular seafront area in Mumbai, you will invariably find a few couples cuddling on the wall facing the sea, seemingly oblivious to the blazing afternoon sun and the endless stream of cars just behind them. In this city of cramped homes and crowded public spaces, these couples will take whatever time alone that they can get, even if it’s in full view of others.

This need for privacy has inspired a comprehensive study by Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (Pukar), an independent research collective based in Mumbai, which analyzed how the scarcity of space in the city has redefined the concept of privacy for the residents.

Among its findings, Pukar reported that a majority of the female respondents did not find public spaces accessible to them because of safety, sexual harassment, public perceptions and family restrictions.

The lack of open spaces in Mumbai has been the focus of much research and debate, even as the problem continues to worsen because of increasing development and a boom in construction. Earlier this year, a study carried out by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Environment Improvement Society found that Mumbai has just 11.6 square miles of open space, with about nine square feet available per person.

“In this era of urbanization, cities have become stronger engines of growth than ever before,” said Anita Patil-Deshmukh, the executive director at Pukar. “And that brings with it a whole host of problems. While certain problems are common to all global cities, the issue of privacy and public spaces is particularly relevant for Mumbai.”

The Pukar study was commissioned as part of the BMW Guggenheim Lab, a traveling research team that deals with urban issues, which is based in the Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Mumbai until Jan. 20.  First conceptualized in December 2011, the study was conducted in and around greater Mumbai and includes 39 qualitative video and audio interviews, 800 surveys conducted in the homes of interviewees and in public spaces and photographic documentation.

“From our initial explorations in the city, the lab team thought it might be interesting to look into how people experienced private moments in Mumbai and how the meaning of privacy is different from the various places we all come from,” said Aisha Dasgupta, one of the BMW Guggenheim Lab members in Mumbai. “We found that not only did the versions of privacy vary greatly across cultures, but also within Mumbai, approaches to privacy vary according to economic background.”

One of the biggest themes that emerged from the study was the lack of access to public spaces: 87 percent of the women felt that public spaces are inaccessible to them. Out of those respondents, 22 percent cited safety as their biggest concern, while 18 percent said that they were afraid of “Eve teasing,” or sexual harassment.

About 14 percent women said that they felt uncomfortable going to public spaces alone because of societal perception, while 11 percent cited family restrictions. “That collectively 25 percent women felt that they could not access public spaces because of the societal or familial judgment shows the deep-seated entrenched patriarchy we are dealing with,” said Ms. Patil-Deshmukh. “Women still feel that if they go to a bar or a tea stall alone they will be considered loose women.”

The study also revealed a rather surprising trend, as 53.5 percent of the respondents said that the place where they find time for themselves is home, followed by their workplace and their commute. Home was also the most popular place to meet partners or friends.

“In a city where the average size of the home is about 80 square feet, and the average size of the family is four people, this is rather shocking,” said Ms. Patil-Deshmukh. However, she said that the respondents might have been inhibited in answering because their interviews were carried out in front of other family members.

The study also revealed the changing patterns of relationships in a new India shaped by growing international exposure and Western influences. When asked with whom they would like to spend time, 36 percent of the respondents said friends, while 26 percent said they wanted time for themselves.

About half of the respondents said that they needed privacy from their neighbors and family. “Given that Indian culture is so deeply people-oriented, and family, friends, neighbors and relatives traditionally play such a large part in society, one has to wonder if more and more globalization is making the younger generation more self-centered,” said Ms. Patil-Deshmukh. “My sense is that this is more true for the younger generation than it was before.”

The BMW Guggenheim Lab is working on a larger project covering 4,000 Mumbai residents. As part of the ongoing study, visitors to the lab at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum are also invited to participate in the survey.

Though similar studies have not yet been carried for other cities, the BMW Guggenheim Lab hopes to extend this research globally. The lab will soon introduce an online survey dealing with issues of privacy and public space. “It would interesting to see how the responses of people in very different cultural contexts compare,” said Ms. Patil-Dasgupta.

Researchers at Pukar said some simple solutions can help increase the amount of open space in Mumbai, like the adoption of public parks and open spaces by private companies that will be asked to maintain the space in return for visibility. The authors of the study also proposed that specific public spaces be carved out for senior citizens and young children.

“I would like to send this study to the city planners, but I’m not confident they will make use of it since they are struggling with so many other issues,” Ms. Patil-Deshmukh said. “A slum dweller I interviewed summed up the situation saying: ‘If the government cannot give us a reasonable place to live in, what right do I have to ask for a public space like a park?’ ”

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