That does not imply we can do anything with it, on it and besides it. This license of ownership is rather a delegation of responsibility that very few of us understand, and therefore are unable to fulfil. As mentioned elsewhere in my columns, social education should begin at preschool or kindergarten.
The claim of ownership again is not an advocacy to accord authorisation to any, some or all of us (read public) to rampantly occupy our city and rural roads, and often even highways. Far from it!
Neither is this in accusation of our political parties, which hardly have any control over their respective followers, and vice versa. They therefore dwell at will on our roads and crossroads day and night. Yet our democratic practices are growing.
For the sceptics, here is my take: the very fact that any Amar, Akbar and Anthony can 365/12 boldly state (shout) on fifty TV channels (and counting) that “there is no democracy in the country” is democracy itself. I wonder if they do radio talk shows, which is more compatible with speech, but I doubt if any of our all-knowing opinionated "artistes" would at all be interested in only lending their voice. No powdering of the sweaty cheeks and forehead? Some would be hardly interested.
Discipline has to exude from within. No government agency, penalty or threat of the stick, no amount of social rebuke or awareness campaign can keep our highways, roads and pavements clean if we owners of the road do not realise that there are other owners besides "I". Yes, there are economic conditions which compel people to occupy roads and pavements for particularly trading and peddling, but not always necessarily so.
Why should goods of a retail outlet spill over to encroach the pavement where pedestrians should walk? Why should restaurants make parota and fry kabab on the footpath, making it look and work like a kitchen? In the dust? And making people sit and eat them inside? Why should shops straddle the road and throttle the plying of vehicles?
The reason for such illegal occupation is simple: the owners of the roaring restaurants, the sparkling shops and the vending vans truly believe that the road and the sidewalk around their businesses belong to them. I know they do not, you do too, but we are too busy to stop by and tell them so. I walk on because my words would fall on deaf ears, and if perchance they could understand my statement, they would burst into guffaws out of sheer disbelief. No one likes to be thought of as a mad man.
Speaking about roads bring into vision other compulsory uses. Absence of proper latrines is not an incentive to suppress your natural movements. After New Market the next set of public toilets southeast are at Osmani Udyan and northwards at Dhanmondi Lake. Try walking with a loaded bladder. I can't even imagine how our womenfolk cope under duress and these dire conditions. Medically speaking, checking natural release may lead to health issues.
There are a couple of mobile toilets (symbolically painted yellow) at Katabon, experimental contrivances perhaps of some city agency. What if they start to move when someone is inside? Therefore, I have never seen them in use.
Helpless, the men feel they own the deserted parts of the street, and some think no one can see them in broad daylight. Even if they do, tough luck. Till such time our municipalities can organise (plan and build) standard facilities for public utilities, we have to understand why for some the road and its tributaries are the only options.
While we can sympathise with the urban poor for lack of facilities, let it not remain unsaid that the shohure babu would hardly think twice before alighting from his vehicle to water the highway flanks when nature does beckon. Raise your hand if you have not done so. I can't see any. The situation has improved one hundred percent over the past decade mainly due to commercial enterprises, restaurants and fuel stations, offering travellers reason to smile a sigh of relief.
Some urban well-to-do are however guilty of fake ownership of public property. It is now quite common to find the road front of residential buildings barricaded to make an extended garden, pushing the real owner (the public) on to the vehicular road. What right do they have? Ask RAJUK, because their inspectors do not allow an inch of encroachment on mandatory open spaces if they are in a state of displeasure.
I have been astounded to see in Dhanmandi area house owners smearing the pavement in front of their buildings with sewage from the adjacent sewer so that young men and women (mostly students from nearby unis) do not sit on public property to gossip or quietly spend some time. Okay, on some romantic evenings they do sing in chorus (or try to) but you can't legitimately send them home with soiled bottoms.
Then there are some house owners who spend good money to construct chained railings along the length of their property so that people cannot sit on the pavement. This calls for action by RAJUK and the municipal corporation to dismantle the contraption immediately because it prevents members of the public from getting on and off the pavement as they please, a clear infringement of civic rights. But, the landlords are certain they own the road as well as the pedestrian walkways.
Let it be understood, the roads and pavements belong to us, but there are many owners beside "I". We own them collectively, and have to ensure public use and freedom of movement by responsibly protecting them.
P.S. Dear City Fathers, we need decent and hygienic public toilets. Please hurry—you know why!
Dr Nizamuddin Ahmed is a practising Architect at BashaBari Ltd., a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.