Saturday, June 2, 2012

Fighting for space: Streetside vendors and urban design

This column on an earlier occasion remarked on the absolute frustration with the lethargy, cynicism and callousness that marked the Kamat model of governance that gave the current government its lease of life. With the election of the Parrikar government there has also been unleashed, as a result of the same frustration, a variety of utopian initatives, not least of which is perhaps the Non Motorized Zone (NoMoZo). This column will deal with two other expressions of this utopian drive, both of which are, like the NoMoZo, concerned with urban design, and the experience of life within the city. The first of these expressions is the suggestions contained in the O Heraldo column of Daniel F. De Souza on the twenty-fourth of May, and the second, a YouTube video petition articulated by Joegoauk Goa, an anonymous visual archivist.

De Souza begins his column by pointing to some of the very real traffic problems that plague the city of Vasco da Gama. He points to the disregard for parking rules that see two-wheelers using space reserved for four-wheelers, and to the unsettling tendency to overtake from the left. It seems however that De Souza saves his best ire for last, when he takes on the presence of roadside garages and makeshift repair shops on the streets of Vasco, charging them with not only being eye-sores but also with posing an inconvenience and hardship to the general public. De Souza argues that by conducting their business on the sidewalk, these shops are forcing the pedestrians off of their rightful space on the footpaths and onto the road and the path of the disorderly traffic and endangering the lives of these pedestrians. 

The video petition of Joegoauk has a similar problem with persons that make a living on the sidewalks and by the sides of roads. His video draws the attention of the Panjim Municipal Corporation the Chief Minister (also MLA of the city of Panjim) to the number of hawkers vending everything from fish, vegetables and plastic toys, amidst the buses and commuters at the Kadamba bus terminus in Panjim.

Both these interventions in the public sphere are motivated by a similar logic, suggesting that the roads are for traffic, the side-walks for the pedestrians, and that the hawkers and vendors, and others making their livelihood off the streets ought to find some other place. Indeed, this is the suggestion that De Souza makes at the end of his column, indicating that the Mormugao Municipal Council ought to identify a location, and then relocate all the makeshift repair shops to that one single location. In making this suggestion De Souza is treading on a well-used path, given that this was a logic that was used in the relocation of the gadey from various parts of Panjim to one single location.

Before differing with the logic that both these gentlemen propose, it should be acknowledged that De Souza does have a point with problematizing the existence of the vehicle repair shops/ garages, though his logic differs from mine. It is true that these enterprises do interfere with the use of the sidewalk. However, the larger problem is that because their presence is not accounted for by the urban-planners or city-council, the highly toxic waste that they generate is unsuitably handled. Invariably the oils and grease they reject stain the ground and find their way into ground water and other water bodies, and other material waste fails to find a route for appropriate waste disposal. The most significant problem with these garages is that they externalize the costs of our usage of vehicles, since the environmental damage that is caused by aging vehicles is not accounted for. Were these garages forced to fulfill norms laid out by the State and municipal bodies, the cost for these norms would have to be borne by the owners of vehicles, giving us a sense of the real cost of our usage of private vehicles that currently dominate our streets.

For all his good intentions however, De Souza’s logic does not seem environmentally responsible. On the contrary, it appears that his logic, and that of Joegoauk, would in fact eventually result in a greater usage of vehicles and the associated environmental resources. In arguing for clearing the streets of street-side vendors, both these individuals subscribe to an urban-planning logic that has created the suburb in other parts of the world. This logic designs urban spaces by their usage, segregating shopping, business, residence from each other, and forcing people to use motorized transport to move from one location to another. Where there is no system of public transport, this results in high use of private vehicles. Simultaneously this same logic designates the street for vehicles able to move at high speeds, and sidewalks for pedestrians only.

There are many problems with this form of urban design, most significant of which is that it does not correspond with the realities of life in India. This reality is one that includes a history of densely populated, multi-use living spaces, as well as the poverty and markedly unequal distribution of wealth. Urban design models that segregate urban use from each other, assume the existence of a prosperous, and middle-class inclined toward high consumption. In forcing the use of private vehicles, this model also spells the death of integrated communities, creating the conditions for crime and social dysfunction.

Both De Souza and Joegoauk, probably have cities like Dubai and Singapore as their models for what our cities should look like. This is not an uncommon desire among the Indian (and Goan) middle-class. We should however keep in mind the words of the RahulMehrotra, and architect, urban studies academic and practitioner who recently authored “Architecture in India Since 1990.” In a recent interview he pointed out that “Looking at Dubai or Shanghai or Singapore as metaphors not only undermines the fact that we’re a democracy but it also undermines the fact that the poor even exist in our cities.”

Street-side garages and vendors exist in our cities not because we are an indisciplined nation, but because these are forms of urban life and commerce particularly suited to the manner in which our society is currently socially and economically structured. These vendors are those who cannot set up shops, and they cater to those who cannot or are unable to visit shops in the course of their daily life. Having a vendor, whose prices do not include a substantial overhead makes economic sense for these consumers. Indeed these vendors are making our society more productive and efficient, and exist only because there is a need for them.

Rather than hounding these vendors away from the streets therefore, rather than criminalizing their presence, there is a need to see how we can effectively integrate them into urban design. De Souza hits the nail bang on the head when he asks the municipal body to address these issues, stressing that the general public needs these services. However, we should be clear that the presence of street vendors is not a problem, that our cities and roads should be seen as spaces shared by pedestrians and vehicles and that urban models designed for undemocratic, wasteful societies are not blindly implemented to our collective loss.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times  30 May 2012)


Siren said...

Very good mind opener. if appropriately placed and spaced gaddas can humanise the city scape.
Recently I was surprised to see a fruitseller vanish from a corner near the Muncipal garden( behind the BSNL office ) and near him comes a gadda selling street food.What norms come into paay when these decisins are made ? Fruit gaddas do not cause litter unlike stret food carts which then need disposal systems which I did not see.

Jason said...

Thank you Siren for your comment, and your observation.

I noticed that the street food carts in Miramar do in fact have little bins that cater to the waste that they generate.

I am not sure if the customers use these bins actively, but I do know that the 'helpers' attached to each cart do deal with this waste as a part of their job.