One of the most in-depth and long-running projects of the BMW Guggenheim Lab’s time in Mumbai was Your Place, My Place, or Our Public Space?: Privacy and Spaces in Mumbai—an illuminating study of Mumbaikars’ perceptions of privacy and public space in their city. The study, which incorporated 1,300 in-person surveys conducted prior to and during the run of the Mumbai Lab, was initiated in cooperation with Partners in Urban Knowledge, Action and Research (PUKAR), a Mumbai-based independent research collective that has been operating in the city since 2001.
While PUKAR has conducted decades of research in the city, there was something particularly interesting about this study: the entire concept they were investigating doesn’t actually entirely exist in the Indian psyche in the first place, at least not as most Westerners would define it. This made the process of developing and conducting the study almost as fascinating as the results that came out of it. “I did have some apprehensions . . . because the concept of privacy in the Western world is so different [from] the concept of privacy in India. Actually in India, except for the megacities, where people are highly educated and have deeper Western influences, this concept of privacy—I would not say it doesn’t exist, but it is not very articulated. People wouldn’t talk about ‘oh my gosh, I lack privacy,’” PUKAR’s executive director, Anita Patil-Deshmukh, told me in a recent interview.
The privacy concept arose for PUKAR and the Mumbai Lab Team as a natural outgrowth of exploring one of the city’s biggest challenges: housing. When you talk about housing, you’re naturally talking about space, and the politics of space in Mumbai teeter on the border between public and private. With large families often living together in small spaces, and open space in the city difficult to find, in Mumbai both public and private space comes at a premium. Almost no one has “space for themselves” as Westerners would traditionally define it. But that doesn’t mean Mumbaikers don’t need moments of refuge. So where do they find them?
“I think it was good for us to explore something that we thought simply didn’t exist. It really challenged our creativity,” said Patil-Deshmukh. Most of the PUKAR team grew up in chawls (small and often overcrowded workers’ quarters) or one-bedroom apartments with their families, with very little privacy, in the usual sense of the word. They knew that if the women of the house had to talk about something private, for instance, they had to go out and be at the open community tap, or they’d talk while standing in the line for toilets, or purchasing groceries or vegetables at the markets—in other words, less traditionally defined public spaces.
“We all had similar experiences, so we had many very long and interesting debates within the team. So we learned a lot out of those debates because we also learned a lot about ourselves, how we look at things, how we see it ourselves,” said Patil-Deshmukh.
For her, some of the most enlightening and surprising findings of the study were less around the understanding of privacy, and more around what emerged as a gross lack of access to public spaces across the board: 87 percent of women said they were not able to access certain spaces because of safety; nearly 25 percent said they had no direct access to community space at all. Even the hyper-wealthy industrialist Patil-Deshmukh interviewed, who owns a massive house and commercial space, felt that he lacked space because if he wants to go for a walk, there is no room for him on the footpath.
“In every single area we went through, this came up: we have no place to go. People need to travel to go to public spaces,” Patil-Deshmukh said. “That’s revealing, and also unhealthy. They need to have access to some outside space because they live in such small spaces.”
More of these fascinating findings from the study were released today. Be sure to check them out.