Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Muddling about in Mapusa: Why Mapusa deserves a second chance…

This column should have appeared on the 12th of May 2010, to accompany the bandh called by the Mapusa Merchants Association (MMA), and to show solidarity with their cause. Failing that however, this column may still have some purpose, to assert the legitimacy of the demand of the MMA and renew attention to the larger issues that the MMA was drawing attention to.

The MMA organized their bandh to protest the step-motherly treatment that they allege (and is evident for all to witness) has been meted out to the once proud market complex. The association of merchants made another important observation however when they argued that it was not just the treatment that was the problem, but the manner in which the ODP (Outline Development Plan) for the town had been created. The ODP proposes expanding roads around the market complex, in a manner that would demolish large sections of this complex. The roads are designed to provide access to the communidade fields beyond the market so as to open these up for development as locations for high-rise apartments.

Given this second threat to the market it is little wonder that the MMA extended its support to the protests of other citizen groups against the Mapusa ODP. Indeed, given the centrality of the weekly Friday market to Mapusa’s contemporary identity, it is significant that a challenge to the ODP has emerged from the merchants of the market. It is indicator to all of us that it is time Mapusa makes a determined departure from the future it seems to be hurtling toward.

There was a time when people from Panjim would sniff when referring to Mapusa. Mapusa was the provincial hick town when compared to its Mandovi-bank cousin. And yet, even today if one looks closely, there is an architectural charm to Mapusa that cries out for recognition. The entire area of Feira Baixa, Feira Alta present a veritable map of the kinds of architectural trends that have passed through Goa and this trading town. Where the harmony of these stylistic jostlings is interrupted is in the high rise buildings that have come up in the past half-decade. The harmony is disrupted not because they are contemporary buildings, but because these high-rise buildings are entirely out of scale with the buildings around them, sticking out, quite literally, like sore thumbs.

Another charming area, one that deserves to be preserved as a heritage space is the residential locality of Dattawadi. Nestled around the Datta temple, the charm and heritage value of this largely Hindu middle-class locality has been unfairly ignored for way too long. Ignore someone or something long enough and they will begin to believe their lack of value. This has been Mapusa’s unfortunate fate. The destruction of Mapusa’s architectural and urban heritage will however, be not just this town’s, but Goa’s at large.

There are a number within Goa’s tourist industry who are waking up to the fact that Goa’s tourism cannot be sustained merely by the beach-bums we have so far been catering to. We need to innovate and expand, even as the beach belt continues to be a major revenue earner. In such a context, the concerted preservation and subsequent utilization of Mapusa’s heritage potential could be the next logical and crucial step. Despite being the logical option to service the beach belt, and elaborate Goa’s tourist industry it is unfortunate that Mapusa’s role has been restricted to a largely utilitarian use.

There is a little lesson for us to be learned from the protest of the Mapusa Merchants, even though it may be an unintended one. Just a very small group stands to gain from the developmental pattern of the high-rise buildings. This group is those associated with the building lobby. As evidenced by the concerns of the MMA, this development pattern hits not just the common man, but even such comfortable groups such as the middle to upper class market merchants. Taking cue from the Mapusa market as a heritage building, we can begin to sense that building from heritage benefits a larger segment. Heritage is after all what everyone already has as capital, it requires only a supporting Governmental framework (like a decent urban plan and tourist industry support) and everyone can cash in on the golden goose. Looking at existing urban settlement patterns and structures as capital allows us to realize another lesson. To pull down priceless heritage buildings is a case of killing this golden goose. It also highlights the poverty of entrepreneurial imagination. But then this is perhaps why Mapusa has gone from a charming provincial town to a dusty trading town; a total lack of entrepreneurial imagination!

The real tragedy of Mapusa however, is that this apparent lack of entrepreneurial imagination is conveying the impression of an absolute lack of a middle class in the city. Where most heritage structures in Goa have been converted to cater to high-end or middle class consumption, the almost absolute lack of such structures in Mapusa seems to suggest the lack of such a class inhabiting the city. This assumption has serious consequences for Mapusa in that it could result in a total lack of any future investment, a flight of capital, eventually turning the town into a large slum catering primarily to the lower income classes. This is not a suggestion that heritage or urban infrastructure is or ought to be restricted to the upper classes, but merely a sad recognition of the manner in which our priorities (especially urban planning) seem to stand. Indeed, one way to display commitment to egalitarian development, and heritage together would be to use the now abandoned building formerly used by St. Anne’s convent as the new location for the Mapusa Municipal Reading room, converting it into a state-of-the-art library and resource centre.

There is a time and season for everything an old lyric tells us. And so it is that if there is a time and season for something in Mapusa, it is one for urban regeneration, based on a recognition of its heritage value. To do so will ensure not just more equitable development, but also rescue the town from the dark future it seems to have consigned itself to.

(First published in the Gomantak Times 30 June 2010)

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