(The story was originally published on 7 October 2017 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives in light of the National Green Tribunal’s direction to the NDMC to shift the protesters, agitators and the people holding dharna (sit-in) from Jantar Mantar to an alternative site at the Ramleela Grounds in Ajmeri Gate 'forthwith'.)
Jantar Mantar, one of the busiest protest hubs in India, is set to face closure as a site of struggle, on environmental pretexts.
The Press Trust of India reported that the “National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Thursday banned all protests and dharnas around the historic Jantar Mantar area in New Delhi, which has been a hotspot of many agitations over the past decades, saying such activities violate environmental laws.”
Nearly all the major protests from across the political spectrum in the city, especially the national-level ones, have occurred at Jantar Mantar for the past three decades.
The more recent ones include protests against the murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh. Anna Hazare’s movement against corruption, One Rank One Pension agitation, the #StandWithJNU protest, the Bhim Army agitation, and the culmination of the annual Queer Pride Parade.
The environmental condition at Jantar Mantar Road in relation to noise pollution, cleanliness, management of waste, and public health has grossly deteriorated. Besides, constant dharna, slogans, noise pollution, health problems due to unhygienic conditions, generated by the agitators round-the-clock, is unique in the instant case.NGT Panel
How Jantar Mantar Became the Protest Site
Over the decades, there has been a political tendency, encouraged by the state, to move the sites of protest further and further from the corridors of power. The final demonstrations and gheraos before the Emergency was imposed, virtually went right up to the Prime Minister’s residence. The Boat Club lawns were where the pro and anti-Indira demonstrations were held. Jantar Mantar, a mile away, and walking distance from Janpath, replaced these sites. Soon, both areas lost their political significance in the popular imagination.
Limiting protests to Jantar Mantar was in itself a huge compromise for protesting groups. The farthest their demonstrations were allowed to reach was the Parliament Street police station.
Ramlila Maidan is Further Away from the Symbolic Authority
The alternative now suggested is Ramlila Maidan, more distant from the administrative buildings, and where, unlike in Jantar Mantar, protesting groups have no symbol of political authority to protest in front of, nor are multiple groups able to comfortably protest at the same time.
Further, demonstrators tend to camp out at Ramlila Ground, as compared to the usually transient protests at Jantar Mantar — meaning Ramlila ground is likely to face more noise pollution and sanitation issues than Jantar Mantar (which is next to a metro station, several public conveniences, and the fact that majority of the noise pollution during the day is caused by vehicular traffic). Further, the chances of a stampede were also far lower in Jantar Mantar.
For agitators, the prospect of gaining media exposure has become substantially grimmer, barring a large camp monopolising the entire Ramlila Maidan, the way Baba Ramdev did some years back.
The Parliament attack in 2001 became a major pretext to beef up security in Lutyen’s Delhi. The “no-thoroughfare” policies of most of Delhi’s private areas today restricts protests to major roads, where irritant commuters are set up against protestors.
Protest culture, in particular, is discouraged by most government agencies in the city today, in many ways. For example, the fine for protesting at or in a Delhi Metro station is one of the stiffest on the list, while the fine for traveling on the roof of a metro train is just Rs 50.
To help curb political and trade union protest in the national capital, big business and the Delhi government collaborated to shift the big factories, such as DCM and Birla mills, out of Delhi and into the provinces and the suburbs – singlehandedly killing the trade union movement in the capital.
The political use of the NGT and its appointees with changing regimes is best demonstrated by the fact that the NGT did not come harshly on the Azadpur landfill until it was too late, and let the Aravali area on Nelson Mandela Marg in Vasant Vihar, opposite JNU, be levelled into spaces for malls and office buildings.
The directives that governments choose to accept are also interesting — directives on the Art of Living festival at the Yamuna floodplain were ignored, as were the alarming signals on the environmental cost of the Commonwealth Games.
Further, the NGT, being in the hands of the BJP central government, did not endorse or encourage the Odd-Even car system imposed by the Delhi Government under Arvind Kejriwal. It was not particularly supportive of the BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) corridor project in Delhi either, both of which would have promoted commuting on public transportation. On Odd-Even, the NGT was sceptical about the benefits (even though air pollution, traffic reduction, and parking space were major issues in Delhi), and failed to recognise even the incremental improvement as worthwhile.
Citizen protestors are being shovelled away in the name of the environment and law and order, often even on sites of gross environmental violations by the government – tribals protesting land acquisition for mining SEZs, the immersion of Tehri, the Sardar Sarovar project, Niyamgiri, and the Sardar Patel statue are some examples.
That the move is political, there is little doubt. What remains to be seen is how the government and NGT can justify such a drastic trampling of democratic rights.
(Saib Bilaval is a PhD scholar in Modern and Contemporary History at Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Malika Pandey is a Bachelor’s student at Maitreyi College, University of Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)