Re-Naming Places

Allahabad to Prayagraj:
Any Role of the Civil Society?

Bhaskar Majumder

On 16th October 2018 the Government of Uttar Pradesh renamed the city of Allahabad as 'Prayagraj'. Proper nouns continue to change in the history of geography like Calcutta becoming Kolkata, Madras becoming Chennai, Bangalore becoming Bengaluru, Bombay becoming Mumbai. Many of these were corrections of misspelling or mispronouncing by the colonizers. The name change also happened for countries like Mishar becoming Egypt, Holland becoming The Netherlands, and East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh. The history of geography also brought about or restored history of culture and memory. For example, former Calcutta was a conversion of three villages, namely, kolikata, Govindpur and Sutanuti, located on the bank of the Ganges into a city. In all probability, Kolikata became Calcutta and then Kolkata, though the physical time of change was much prolonged relative to the expectation of civil society in West Bengal.

A common man hardly grasps what inspired the Government of Uttar Pradesh to go for the change in nomenclature. The 49-day Kumbh Mela began on January 15 and concluded on March 4, 2019 at Prayagraj. The announcement of conversion from Allahabad to Prayagraj preceded organizing the Kumbh. If the two are juxtaposed, it seems Kumbh needed the conversion. The question remains why.

What Happened on the Ground?
The conversion, Allahabad to Prayagraj, by the Government of Uttar Pradesh accomplished demolition of houses and shops totally or partially for restoration of public roads to its original plan in the city in end-2018 as a prelude to preparation of Kumbh 2019 at Prayagraj. The victims included mostly the business community, popularly known as 'Lalas' in the caste-stratified city, though some were Brahmins and Thakurs also. As reported by the administration, the process was restoration of original road-space that had been occupied by the encroachers.

Often the process of encroachment took time—it was a gradual move or stop-go, often with tacit consent of the local authority; the encroachers were accommodated in a soft social system. Often political patronage stopped the eviction of the actors seen as reserve army of voters for the polity—human common pool. The alternative conjecture could be that encroachment varied in direct proportion with the capacity of the individual to encroach. In some cases, the local dabang (muscleman) captured the space that is known as 'kabja' in local parlance.

Space Restoration Drive
The shops and residential buildings constructed on the public roads had been identified by the Allahabad Development Authority (ADA) for demolition totally or partially depending on the extent of encroachment. The demolition work continued simultaneously in areas like Jhusi, Sobtiyabag, Teliargunj, Bairana, Belli Road, Chowk and Jonsengunj Chouraha. The demolition was caste-community-gender-poverty-neutral. The demolished shops on the roadside included medical store, grocery shop, sweet, meat shop, cloth shop, and bakeries. The boundary wall of Government-run TB Hospital was also demolished along with the boundary wall of Boy's High School near Mayo Hall Chouraha.

Following our conversation with the affected owners of houses/shops, we learnt that the ADA assured to pay compensation for the structures demolished if these were on private land. For demolition of structures made on lease land or public land, no compensations were to be paid. For this demolition drive, the owners of shops and residential buildings were served prior notice. Those uninformed by notification were informed orally by the representatives of the ADA. The ADA had marked the encroached areas. Most of the structures were demolished by the ADA and some were demolished by the encroachers themselves at own cost. In case of the demolition drive undertaken by the ADA, a demolition-cost was imposed on the encroacher.

Public within Public Space
While the public space like a temple or a mosque is a building for expression of religious faith, it also generally includes entry and exit of all unless there are traditions to the contrary that remained unquestioned so far. Thus, in some such buildings, entry-exit is gender-neutral, in some it is gender-specific, and in some it is only for the national citizens, while some are for sections of one particular religious faith.

The temples as public space in the city of Allahabad show mushroom growth often beginning with the trees considered as sacred. Trees are not cut readily for environment that in parallel offer opportunities to the devotees to put stones at the bottom of the trees considered as Lord Shiva or by transformation of such stones considered as Hanuman (one of the great characters in epic Ramayana).

What came under the demolition drive in the city of Allahabad in year 2018 were public buildings of religious faith that included temples and mosques; this mirrored that the public space had been annexed in the past for construction of public buildings. The preparations for Kumbh, 2019, needed demolition of identified mosques and temples that annexed public space. In the restoration of public roads many of the trees with pieces of stones coloured with vermilion and symbols of deities placed at the bottom of these trees for worship in the tradition of Hindu religion were felled. The demolition affected the livelihood of the vendors and shop owners selling garlands, sweets, and fruits in areas around the temples.

Sub-Optimum Civil Society
The civil society is active when the citizens are aware of what happened that affected the society at large; it is active when it assets rights in a reciprocal frame and stands for social justice. The civil society, thus, carries ideology that serves mankind irrespective of birth-caste-religion-gender.

The kind of meeting that the administrative authority takes (in most of the regions in UP 'sab meeting lete hai') is not a reflection of the functioning existence of the civil society. In Jhusi on the east of the city of Allahabad, the District Collector held a meeting adjacent to Paani ki Tanki (concrete water tank) with the local inhabitants pre-demolition whose houses or shops were going to be demolished. The Collector asked for legal documents to prove possession of the plot of land on which those houses or shops were built. The owners of houses could justify the construction at their own cost but failed to prove the ownership of land on which those were constructed. Many of these houses or shops were built decades back. One dharna (assembly of people for their rights) was also made by the stakeholders in front of Jhusi police station. However, the constructed houses, totally or partially, were demolished on District Collector's order. This included disappearance of an ATM booth of a nationalized Bank that was rented-in long back from a household on the annexed land. Thus, the demolition drive not only affected those who owned the houses but also those who rented-in, those who bought total or part of that house from the first owner who constructed on public land.

Private and Public Space
In the processes and consequences, most of the persons interviewed were not confident in understanding the private-public differential. Anything that they thought could be annexed they did without bothering about the negative externalities. The first victim became in the process the commons. Silence of the competent authority, for reasons not clear, helped the encroachers; we failed to get information if extra-legal rent helped some of the officials in administration. The question comes, otherwise how could the buildings/shops be built up on roads and used/operated over decades? And how did the city administration shut its eyes on the face of demolition of buildings that probably it authorized for construction?

Some of the 'earlier gainers and present losers', first by annexing public space and second by getting constructed house demolished, vaguely opined that they had acquired the right to live there because of the time-span more than 12 years that they spent living in their constructed houses without realizing that any private building on public land becomes extra-legal for that plot of land is recoverable by the public administration. In most of the regions of India the occupied public space is not recovered for reasons of polity or vote bank and not because of law. Law violated by the mass society is also often tolerated by the state for reasons of ignorance of the former and accommodation of the former by the latter.

The easy living in a Rurban (Rural-Urban) the city of Allahabad accommodates people of different centuries. Some live in pre-history, some in pre-Newtonian, some confined to the locality, and a few in global networks. The demolition drive 2018 to restore public roads of the city of Allahabad to its original plan has befooled many such believers of private annexation of public space.

Power and Public Space
A space is public if it is outside the domain of private property, property as acknowledged by the state. While public space is the domain of common use by the people, it creates conflict based on relative power and power that is often derived from or sponsored by the state. State is also the authority to allow or disallow the private space to remain exclusively for the individual. The individual, thus, does not define the domain nor does fix the historical legality of private space even—it depends on the state. The state can dispossess the individual any time if it is in state-defined 'public interest'.

Power is elastic if it is state-sponsored; power is inelastic if it is distanced from the power centre. Power may become less inelastic if it gets linked with power elite. In case the local power remains unquestioned, it is projected as elastic. The construction of tiny temples and mosques on public roads could be taken as example of local power at the budding stage, if religious faith permeates power, while demolition of temples and mosques by the competent authority could be taken as negation of the local power to proliferate. The demolition was, in fact, a prelude to organize the Kumbh, 2019 at Prayagraj at a world scale that was later manifest by presence of devotees from both home and abroad.

Culture of Silence
Silence of the individual seemed to be a rational choice when the individual occupied the public space. Since no one was crowded out and since the annexation was proportional to the capacity of the individual in a soft accommodative socio-cultural frame, hence it remained unquestioned. However, silence prevailed when the public space was being restored by the administration by demolition of the building constructed for private purposes. One explanation of silence was specific to the rurban city—it was naturally silent for it remained non-industrialized and deeply embedded in a particular culture along with rituals as integral components of being in Hindi-Hindu tradition. The other explanation could be rent-seeking mindset of the local people, and 'Jugaar' (managing somehow). Many of the owners of shops continued business that included shops for intoxicants, tea stalls, and furniture after demolition of their pucca shops.

Civil Society in Silence
Be it conversion of Allahabad to Prayagraj, be it demolition of buildings built extra-legally, be it convened meeting with the administration, the silence of the civil society was manifest. It seems that private-public differential was not much understood in a given frame of silence. Annexation was realized late, ahead of organizing Kumbh.

The silent character of the city was evident. The annexation of public space and the culture of silence went parallel. We were not much certain if the city administration tacitly allowed such annexation in the unrecorded past and retreated in the face of demolition of unauthorized buildings. The social general equilibrium of the city remained intact.

[Bhaskar Majumder, Professor of Economics, G. B. Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad—211019]

Vol. 51, No. 51, Jun 23 - 29, 2019