Monday, January 8, 2007

Driving Goa toward an Urban Dream

Not so long ago a description of Panjim made it sound romantically like the Forbidden City in Beijing. An ‘official’ city with a daytime population that came in from the surrounding areas to work and left the city at sunset, leaving a strangely empty city. And it was so true, this is a part of the charm of Panjim, and of the other Goan towns, Goans live in villages and commute for work to the towns, enjoying in that sense the best of both worlds. This state of affairs will not last long though. Reports indicate that in time to come, if not already, 50% of Goa’s population will live in her towns, creating urban management problems that we have not yet had to deal with, and it is about time we started thinking about them.

If you were to drive into Panjim, or from Panjim outward anytime after ten in the evening you will see a good amount of people, very obviously labourers or workmen, crossing the Mandovi bridge on foot, or walking toward villages just outside of Panjim. Perhaps the scenario is similar in other towns in Goa. The reason for these late night jaunts is not particularly a desire to save money or to take in the soft night air. These people are actually walking home from their work, since there is no public transport available at these hours. There is no ferry across the Mandovi, there are no buses that would be able to ferry people to their destinations in the outlying villages.

Now this is not a problem for the labourers who come into Goa from ‘outside’, but a problem that faces us gentle ‘Goan’ folk as well. The elderly and the poor who cannot afford private vehicles and cannot commute on holidays, or past the hours that the public transport system operates. The lack of a public transport system that is popularly perceived to be constant, dependable, time-efficient and effective is one of the primary reasons why Goan roads and out urban centres have gotten clogged with traffic. The result, traffic jams and snarls, rise in noise and air pollution and the destruction of the charm of our urban (and rural) areas to make way for ever more larger roads.

Perhaps the most visible symbol of this destruction was the controversy surrounding the widening of the Campal road. The widening has not solved any problems, not because a job of widening was not properly done (it wasn’t), but essentially because a suggestion of contemporary urban studies was proved right. Build a bigger road, and the immediate problem of congestion is solved until new vehicles emerge to fill that space up. If we are to not flatten our cities into huge roads the only solution therefore is to prevent people from having private transport and encourage them to use public transport.

One of the delights of the modern European city and cities around the world that follow that aesthetic is the fact that much of the core areas of the city have been pedestrianised. Areas that are not have an effective public transport service, making reliance on one’s own transport pointless and expensive. The hurried response to this argument that most Indians make is that public transport is associated with the lower classes, and there is no way that the recently well to do and middle class are going to give up their status symbols. Now this is true, but it is also a good reason to revamp the manner in which we look at public transport. Why should public transport be cramped, inelegant and time consuming? Cities where public transport is actually widely used in fact provide reasonably plush travelling experiences. The result for the city is of an urban paradise where the streets are shaded, where public life spills out of buildings onto the street. In short, a relaxed and peaceful urban environment, a throwback to the nostalgic days of old, with all contemporary benefits.

The Goan urban centre is still small, and there is no good reason for us to have to necessarily cramp them with private vehicles. There is also no good reason for us to leave our villages for the benefits of the towns. The benefits can be made available if only we develop an effective mode of public transport, that allows us to get to any part of our small state in a reasonably short time, comfortable manner, and any time of the day, or night. Regular bus routes around the town, and not only central areas; connections between urban centres and urban centres and villages, if only we worked on this, then perhaps much of the charm of Goa would be retained, rather than sacrificed in the name of development. All too often a negative equation is posed between development and the environment and heritage, an equation that is entirely false an unnecessary. There is no need to sacrifice one for the other. On the contrary, working to achieve both transports us directly to that goal of most economic and developmental activity; Quality of life. A priority for developing public transportation systems is not necessarily a priority for the marginal sections of society. True it benefits them the most, but while doing so, it also lays the groundwork for a richer quality of life for all of society. Think of it as the bangaranchem Goem of our dreams realised in reality. Who’s catching the next bus with me then?

(earlier published in Gomantak Times, 2006)

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