Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Between Lisbon and Panjim: Developments for a healthy city

Lisboacho ganv, khoxen anv poitelem

Poitoch Lisboa, viva re Goa, ghara yetelim

A week or so ago, Goan newspapers informed us of the visit of a high-level Portuguese delegation led by the ambassador of Portugal to India, Dr Luis Filipe de Castro Mendes to the Corporation of the City of Panjim. This delegation included the Consul General of Portugal to Goa, and the Director of international relations at the Camara Municipal de Lisboa and proposed signing of a tripartite memorandum of understanding between the Portuguese government, the Goa government and Fundação Oriente for the development of Panjim in vaious areas.

This occurrence is largely representative of good news. The news report suggested that Panjim’s Mayor, Ms. Po has asked for assistance of the Lisbon Municipal Council in areas like city’s internal public transportation and preservation of some heritage buildings in the city. All very good news, there is a need for us to deal with the mounting pressure of traffic in our little town, and nothing would be more sensible than introducing a decent public transportation system within the city; one that would link up efficiently with the public transport that connects other parts of the state to the town. Indeed, perhaps as in Lisbon, we could also work out a system where we have cycle lanes and pedestrian paths that would bring some measure of civility back to the streets of Panjim. Ms. Po suggested as much, when she specifically referred to trying to do something about Panjim’s footpaths. Given that Panjim’s topography is not uniformly level, it might not be a bad idea to introduce buses that allow cycles to be carried, either inside the bus, or outside of it.

Mr. Po seems to have other wonderful ideas as well, and this includes garbage management. For those who are as yet unaware, a good amount of Panjim’s garbage now finds its way to an abandoned quarry site on Taleigão plateau. The quarry is now almost full up to the brim, if not nearing its capacity. Getting an efficient waste management system would not be a bad idea. Except that we know that Goa’s waste management crisis is not the result of a lack of technology. It is the lack of political will; both at the level of the common person, as well as that of the administrative bodies. Nevertheless let us give credit where it is due and note that the initial efforts of such persons as Clinton Vaz, who initiated the system and idea of the segregation of waste is slowly gaining ground. When the Mayor of a city indicates the need for it, you know that we are headed somewhere. For this initiative, thank you Ms. Po, Clinton and the many other activists who were responsible for initiating the idea of waste separation as a solution to Goa’s garbage crisis.

There was a point though when the meeting between this ‘High level delegation’ and the City Corporation seemed to carry in it the seeds for urban disaster. The director of international relations at the Camara Municipal de Lisboa is reported to have indicated that “… we have even offered to extend help in building technical bridges like flyovers in Panaji.” Perhaps this is where we need to smile and get a grip on reality. Panjim is not Lisbon, and perhaps it will never be. Lisbon is the capital city of a country and hosts a population of about 564,402 people. Goa while a capital, caters to a much smaller region and a smaller population. There is no reason for us to assume a need for flyovers when we have not begun to contemplate effective mass transit options.

There was another issue that suggested a need for horrified reaction in the news report, and that was where Ms. Po observed that “the new generation families in the Portuguese capital are asked to construct their houses outside Lisbon, and as an incentive offered free transport to the city, besides their house tax and school fees of the children being borne by the municipality.”

Lisbon is a wonderful and charming city, and surely we should associate with it. However, not all is well with Lisbon. In fact one could go to the extent of suggesting that Lisbon and Goa suffer from similar ills. One significant problem that Lisbon suffers from is that the centre of the city is largely empty of residences and hence shut up. There is a flight from the charming centre of town, and a number of buildings are run down. One of the reasons for this flight and abandoning of buildings are the rental regulations that somehow stand in the way of urban renewal. The problem however is that when these buildings are renewed, they are priced out of the range of the lower to middle class populations. Richer Portuguese and foreigners on the other hand purchase these buildings as investments and holiday homes. (Does this story sound familiar yet?) There is a distinct process of gentrification on in Lisbon’s centre and this is not necessarily a good thing to happen. What is worse, is that the real estate lobby in Lisbon is no worse from that in Goa. There are hundreds of newly built residential buildings in greater Lisbon that are going empty. Some of them have been empty for years now. Thus one has a push out of the historic urban centre, but a greater destruction of the environment in the outlying areas, than there is demand for homes.

There is already a similar process of sorts at work in Goa. A greedy real estate lobby encouraging urban sprawl, and the conversion of Goan homes where real people live, into showcases for the lifestyles of the (largely non-Goan) rich and famous. City improvement does not mean getting people out of the city; it involves getting people to have a better experience in the heart of the city. Ms. Po has already got a part of the equation right, investment in heritage buildings, in public infrastructure like public transport and walkable footpaths. Having people within the city allows for us to have a public and civic life. Shunt people out to suburbs and the civic and public life manages to die.

While conversations and exchanges between Goa and Portugal are something that we should encourage, we should remember that we are not in the game of blindly copying. We need to take from Portugal what we need. Thanks to Portugal’s participation in the EU process, there are a number of participatory governance mechanisms that we could learn. Not least of which is the notion of a service state, where the State serves, if not services it citizens.

Let us a raise a cup to the possibility of a new venture then, and keep our fingers crossed for healthy developments! Or as the lyrics of Lorna’s Lisboa go…

Chintlelem chintop purem zalear puro re Deva

(Subsequent to the publication of this column, it was brought to my attention by a member of the Portuguese delegation that visited the Panjim City Corportation, that Ms. Judice, Director of international relations at the Camara Municipal de Lisboa had been misquoted in the article by the Navhind Times. She did not make any reference to the issue of 'flyovers', and secondly, given that there was no representative from construction and infrastructures integrated into that delegation, a proposal would make not have made any sense at that moment.)

(A version of this column was first published in the Gomantak Times dated 10 Nov 2010)

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