Thursday, May 24, 2012

No…Mo…Zo! Taking Urban space back to whom it belongs

About a fortnight ago, citizens of Panjim city and from various other parts of the State celebrated a Non Motorized Zone (NoMoZo). By all descriptions, NoMoZo was a grand success, overwhelmed by a huge turn-out of people who flocked to the stretch of Dayanand Bandodkar Road around Campal that had been blocked off for traffic. This NoMoZo then turned that stretch of road into a playground for the citizenry, allowing people to walk across the road, to cycle, to skate, little children to use their tricycles, for the road to be used as canvas for temporary art-works, for playing community games and the like. There was, as was to be expected, some amount of chaos as a result of the traffic diversion, especially where people were unaware of what exactly was going on, but by all reports, this chaos was not substantial.

In the afterglow of such success however, and especially because of the various interpretations of the event that are going around, it is important that we refocus on the agendas that could legitimately animate NoMoZo. One of those supporting the NoMoZo for example, suggested that having Campal free of motorized traffic for a couple of hours was the point of the exercise. “It would look so nice.” The fetishization of traffic-free spaces in elite neighbourhoods however is not the point of NoMoZo. On the contrary, the NoMoZo movement has plans to reconvene next, on 18 June Road, the throbbing heart of Panjim city, on the eighteenth of June. The fetishization of vehicle free roads eventually takes us down an elitist path, justifying the good old days, when only a few people had vehicles. This is categorically not the aim of NoMoZo that has a much more sophisticated relationship with traffic.

There is no denying the fact that since everyone wants and has a vehicle, the traffic in our cities is getting out of control. It is leading to road rage, and the destruction of our cities through the expansion of roads and the consequent demolition of homes and livelihood spaces. One has to also recognize however, that the result of this growth in private vehicles has been the boost in self-image and the social assertion of the owners of these vehicles. This growth in vehicles then, was a part of the democratic project. However, because it is the democratic project that is our goal, and not the growth of automobiles, we need to take this democratic urge forward, by equalizing the playing field and encouraging more people to travel in public transport.  One of the critical goals then, is to boost the use of comfortable, safe, reliable and efficient public transport, transportation that is intended for more than those who cannot afford private vehicles.

The first edition of NoMoZo effected a ban also on the entry of public transport into the demarcated zone. This may be a useful step in the short run, but if public transportation for all is to be our larger goal, it is important NoMoZo be open to including the passage of public transportation when it is in progress. There are a number of reasons, in addition to the discussion above, why this should be done. First, it would encourage, what is admittedly the currently callous way of driving public transport, to discipline itself. Given that NoMoZo is about pointing out that the first citizen of the urban space, is the pedestrian, and not the vehicle, it would train the bus drivers and conductors, to give the pedestrian right of way. Too often unfortunately, might has become right in our society, allowing larger vehicles to mow down smaller vehicles and smaller people. NoMoZo should therefore, actively create an environment where the pedestrian is king. The second reason to allow for public transportation when NoMoZo is in progress, is because it will make people realize that there is a middle-path between using private vehicles and walking; reliable public transportation. If people are annoyed that their thoroughfares are blocked to their vehicles, we should be able to indicate to them, that there is the option of public transport that they can use. Ideally, the State and city governments should use NoMoZo as a way to introduce people to the new mass transit systems that they should start implementing. Also, given that as of today, public transport is used by those with no other option, to evict public transport, when a democratically inclined event like NoMoZo is in operation would be surreal step towards making it just a one-off picnic for the ‘hi-fi’!

There is another cancer that has been eating into our urban life that NoMoZo is ideally located to deal with. This cancer has been the steady abandonment of our public spaces and their falling into disuse, as we retreat to finding entertainment in private spaces.  This trend marks the slow death of society, and the eventual rise of a climate of suspicion of the neighbor. A significant contributor to this tendency is no doubt our increasing use of private capsules to shuttle from one private location to another. Add to these capsules the currently fashionable air-conditioning and our disconnection from the public sphere is compounded. What NoMoZo does is to rekindle the threatened community spirit by taking us away from the private capsules into which we retreat, and back into the public spaces that were being abandoned in favour of private spaces. There will be many who will acknowledge that participating in the first NoMoZo, on the  thirteenth of May, ensured that there are a couple of more faces that they now know in Panjim city, and can smile at, as a result of participating in the community events that animated the event. 

It has to be acknowledged however, that the determined recapture of our public spaces has been a project at least in Panjim city, with the Campal Creek project, the many musical performances at the bandstand in the Jardim Municipal, and many others. While speaking of concerts in public spaces, it should be pointed out that another one of the triumphs of NoMoZo was the use of non-amplified music. Where road-rage is initially released through raucous honking, there is also something disturbing about our indiscriminate use of loudspeakers that foul the public sphere. Toward this end, NoMoZo is also laying the ground for a renewal in the manner in which we conceive of the use of the public sphere.
One of the better learnings from NoMoZo however, came from those who, rather than participating in the fun activities that formed the core of NoMoZo, performed the volunteer’s tasks of redirecting traffic. What became increasingly obvious to these volunteers was the kind of effort that goes into a traffic policeperson’s job. A job that has to deal not only with exhaust pollution, but noise pollution, and more often than not the disrespect from motorists. This disrespect involves the refusal to budge, especially when directed by police-women, to vacate no-parking zones; the blithe jumping of red lights; and the refusal to wait patiently in line, but rather resort to individual attempts to cut the traffic jam. Perhaps with more citizens volunteering to manage traffic, we would be able to develop an empathy with the often maligned police forces, returning to labour the dignity that is so often snatched from it?

Goa is fast becoming the victim of its own success. While the growth of real-estate developments are evidence of its success as a destination to live in, the growth in traffic is a success of the society flush with funds. The problem with the latter however, is that we have entered a spiral where the pedestrian is not privileged, and it is the vehicle that has the right of way on roads.  The person has been displaced to locate the vehicle as the appropriate subject of the urban space. Thus we engage in this unending expansion of roads, and see our urban space, not as places to live and play, but as places to park and drive vehicles. NoMoZo is such a welcome move to put the social actor back in the spotlight.  To all those who worked toward making the first NoMoZo a success, thank you, and may your work see fruition. 

Viva NoMoZo!

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times dtd 23 May 2012)

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