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Why has loitering become a cardinal sin?

Increasingly, India is no country for loiterers, on stoops or in parks. We are all being shepherded into air-conditioned malls with doormen who wave magic wands at us

The laws try to discourage everything in public places, from food to blankets.
The laws try to discourage everything in public places, from food to blankets. (iStockphoto)

Our house in Kolkata had a front porch or stoop. We called it rowak and it was a haven for loitering.

The loiterers came in shifts. The morning batch was mostly men armed with newspapers. They would get tea and slices of thick charred bread from the teashop across the street, sit on our rowak and discuss politics, sports and global affairs. When I left for school, I would have to thread my way through the rowak-uncles.

By afternoon, it would become a napping spot for the vegetable sellers. Sometimes someone would lay their freshly washed clothes out to dry.

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Around evening, a different set of tea-sipping loiterers would show up—young college students, office-goers on their way home, courting couples. The teashop would switch to a snacks menu—fish fries and chicken cutlets. I was cautioned not to become a rowak-baaj, the type of boy who wastes his time in idle chatter on the stoop.

At that time it seemed an annoyance, a stoop that simultaneously belonged to us and was used by everyone except us. With all the space in the city, why did everyone have to loiter on our front steps, we grumbled?

Now I realise it was part of the vanishing commons of the city. Increasingly, India is no country for loiterers, young or old, on stoops or in parks. We are all being shepherded into air-conditioned malls with doormen who wave magic wands at us.

In Bengaluru, Lalbagh Reads, a popular reading community that has been gathering in the Lalbagh Botanical Garden to quietly read together, has been told to halt their initiative immediately. A citizen who found the group sitting on the grass and reading complained it “tampers with the growth of natural fauna and flora”. Also in Bengaluru, the Cubbon Park authorities have told security guards not to allow food, playing games or commercial photography. The food might lead to rats, the rats might lead to snakes and that could prove to be the proverbial snake in the grass in some couple’s personal Eden. “So, from a safety point of view, because these couples sit in some corner areas of the park and do all sorts of things, we have placed the ban,” Rajender Kumar Kataria, principal secretary of the horticulture department, told a media outlet, The News Minute, in April.

Of course no one is arguing for a littering free-for-all in a park or a love-in. Parks are not meant to be a dumping ground for potato chips packets, cold drink bottles and Tetrapaks, broken glass and condom wrappers. Nor are they meant to be a place where youngsters gather to get drunk and stoned. But a blanket ban on food or blankets in a park feels like something more. This hypervigilance must have something to do with our innate suspicion of those who loiter.

Of course it’s even more suspicious for a woman to loiter. Nilanjana Bhowmick, author of Lies Our Mothers Told Us: The Indian Woman’s Burden, said in an interview that she once did a quick survey on Google and “over 44% of women said they have never loitered alone or in a space that didn’t already have lots of other women in it”. In some places in north India, she said, “The fear is very real. I can actually touch my fear.” The problem, she says, is that the government’s response invariably is more surveillance, more CCTVs, more marshals. “Women are not comfortable with that,” she claimed. “There is already a lot of surveillance in our lives.”

But it all begs the question why this kolaveri (rage) about loitering, even though we all dutifully learnt the W.H. Davies poem that went, “what is this life, if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare”. That’s all very fine in a poem but in real life, loitering, it seems, is regarded as the gateway vice to other more heinous evils and the park becomes a petri dish for middle-class morality.

As Shilpa Phadke writes in her book, Why Loiter? Women And Risk On Mumbai Streets: “Citizens’ groups would like parks to comply with notions of middle-class aesthetics and morality. Timings for opening and closing, rules about edibles, lists of do’s and don’ts in the park, and the presence of visible security signify not just concerns of beauty and cleanliness, but also of morality.” In fact, morality becomes beauty, cleanliness equals morality.

Loitering, like sloth, has become one of the cardinal sins and there is always a chowkidar (watchman) with a stick telling us to keep moving.

In Kolkata, the Victoria Memorial is a green spot that’s a favourite for courting couples. At closing time, a chowkidar goes around blowing a whistle very loudly. Young couples tumble out of the bushes, some adjusting their clothes. That it happens under the stony gaze of Queen Victoria adds an extra bit of irony to the whole situation. But it also reminds us how few places there are in a city of millions for a young couple to be alone with each other without paying 220 for an Americano.

The courting couple at least have a reason to be in the park even if “they do all sorts of things”. The children have a reason, as do the dog walkers or the daily helps who gather on benches to open their tiffin carriers and have lunch. What perturbs us most are those who seem to have no good reason to be loitering. It’s the aimlessness of a true loiterer that makes us upright citizens very nervous.

The US has had some experience with this. There was a point when people moved out of the cities into the suburbs. Those who remained in public places were perceived as riff-raff—homeless Vietnam vets, ageing hippies, the unemployed, the prostitutes, petty drug dealers or gang members, the flotsam and jetsam of city life. The cities tried to discourage those people from loitering. They removed benches or made them harder to sit on. America came up with anti-loitering ordinances modelled on England’s Elizabethan “Poor Laws”, which targeted vagrants and unemployed people coming into England’s cities in the 1600s. If loitering had been a quasi-criminal activity, now it was properly criminalised. There was even a legal definition for it when Jacksonville in Florida passed a law in 1972 defining loiterers as “persons wandering or strolling from place to place without any lawful purpose or object”. Eventually, in 1992, the US Supreme Court ruled that just because someone is suspected to be a gang member, they cannot be prevented from loitering in public.

The laws tried to discourage the undesirables and anti-socials from hanging around public spaces. In the process, they discouraged everyone else as well. Let’s hope India, in its zeal to clean up its public spaces, doesn’t go that route. Those spaces are shrinking. The rowak in front of our house is long gone. Most of the houses on the streets have turned into apartment buildings. Their gates look inwards, where the stoops once looked outwards. The teashop loiterers now sit on plastic chairs on the street. At the end of their chai and chit-chat, the chairs are stacked and stored away till the next day.

During the covid-19 lockdown, Kolkata, like most cities, closed down all its open spaces. In 2022, restaurants and bars and malls had reopened but the parks remained closed or had very restrictive timings, until citizens led an outcry asking the chief minister to unshackle their open spaces. They were, in effect, asking for the freedom to loiter once more.

Perhaps it’s the word loitering that is the problem. Dan Burden, the executive director of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, a non-profit that pushes governments to design cities that put people first, says in a 2012 interview with Bloomberg that he prefers the word lingering. We linger with a glass of wine. Scents linger. The notes of a melody linger. The last light of a summer day lingers on the horizon. And we linger in bed to hold on to the shreds of a dream that made us happy. Unlike loitering, lingering has an abhi na jao chhod kar feel to it.

We need to plan cities whose spaces invite us to linger.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host. He posts @sandipr.

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