For some, taking a dispute about a community gate to the High Court might seem like an overreaction, but Manish Anand, a resident of Tagore Gardens in West Delhi, said that he is left with no choice. After 10 weeks of fruitless visits to the police station, he is determined to get rid of the gate near his home that prevents free passage of vehicles and pedestrians.

Anand isn’t the only one who finds his gated enclave a problem. Earlier this month, a committee formed by the Union Urban Development Ministry to look into traffic issues in Delhi, expressed concern over “the mushrooming of gated communities” across the city.

The committee was perhaps referring to residential enclaves that were enclosed with gates many years after being built. This is common in Delhi, where, over the past three decades, Residents’ Welfare Associations have erected gates in their localities to block public thoroughfares, ostensibly for security reasons.

When public becomes private

But this unofficial privatisation of public roads has restricted public access to these spaces. This affects traffic on the city’s arterial roads, since instead of taking detours through smaller roads, vehicles instead clogs main roads open to the public.

These gates have no legal standing since private bodies are not allowed to block public roads, and the Urban Development Ministry committee has suggested that gates within these colonies be kept open to enable commuters to use them.

If this proposal were to be put into action, Sanjay Panwar of Janakpuri, West Delhi, will be relieved. Three years ago, the road connecting his street to the main road was blocked by community gates. Residents of his street now need to take a longer route, through areas they consider unsafe, to reach the main road.

Twelve years ago, retired army officer Lt Col CPC Nath filed a Public Interest Litigation in the Delhi High Court arguing that “gates, barriers and humps tend to privatise public streets, giving undue power to one person (or persons) who live on a street while depriving the rest of the neighborhood a voice. It is still unfair to other residents who use the street and paid as much in taxes for it as those who happen to live along it.”

Ever since the court ruled in his favour, Lt Col Nath has become a sort of a consultant, helping others get rid of illegal gates. He responds to several requests for assistance each week. A particular road’s width is designed based on the traffic in the area,” he said. “Tampering with traffic patterns is causing higher risk and pollution.”

Cordoning off public spaces for select groups is a burgeoning issue in cities at the receiving end of rampant real estate development. As The Hindu reported last October, around 500 gated communities that sprung up in Bangalore were not recognised by the municipal authorities as such. The civic bodies arrived at a suburban gated community to demolish its gates and compound walls and claimed access to the roads inside.

Class consciousness at work

In most cities, security is the main argument for installing gates on public thoroughfares. “Gated enclaves are usually a reflection of class consciousness and urban threats,” said Sanjay Srivastava, Professor of Sociology at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. “These do not address inequality in the city but are reactions to inequality.”

Back in Tagore Gardens, Anand receives frequents threats from his fellow residents who want the gates shut to keep traffic from passing by their houses. The daily irritant of being denied free passage has pushed many to file police complaints and Right to Information applications. While some have been successful, others have been hitting brick walls, or should we say – gates?