Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Catching the social: And not missing the bus

As the Non-Motorized Zone (NoMoZo) initiative progresses toward its third installment, there are two broad cautions that is appears we need to keep in mind. The first is that without the leaders of this initiative indicating quite clearly the direction they intend to take, and the larger principles that animate the initiative, NoMoZo could well turn into just another feel-good event organized at regular intervals. There is no doubt a larger intellectual framework for the project and it would be worthwhile to share this with the larger public, both those who turn up with such enthusiasm for NoMoZo, as well as those who do not. This act of sharing would impart to NoMoZo, which already brims over with popular energy, a democratic element, in so far as democracy ideally involves an element of information and consciousness. Without these two elements, an initiative, no matter how popular, would remain merely populist.

The second caution that we would need to address, and one that this column will spend some time on, is that of the response that a good amount of persons involved in the exercise seem to toward the perceived goals of the project. Where the goals are being demonstrated to be to reduce the amount of traffic on the roads of Panjim, the solutions being offered by these enthused members of the citizenry are largely technological fixes. Thus, the solution to the  swarm of traffic that currently clog Panjim’s roads are held to be the banning of vehicles into the centre of Panjim, the introduction of trams and bus routes, the adoption of cycles; and to resolve the parking crisis, the creation of multistoried parking  facilities.

This column will suggest that while technological fixes are necessary, they can only be a part of the solution, and perhaps in the final analysis a rather small part of the solution. Any comprehensive solution, we would argue, must necessarily take the social into consideration. We mean a number of things when we say ‘the social’. First, that there is not only the need for a change in social attitudes, but we need to ground our efforts and suggestions in the NoMoZo in an empathetic view of the society we live in.

An empathetic view of our society would commence with the idea that recognizes that our society is extremely status conscious, and that vehicles, both two-wheelers and four, are marks of having arrived socially. They are indicators of our social and consumptive power. Having recognized this, we could make a distinction between people who have held power for a substantial amount of time, and now spend money in purchasing either one (or more) vehicles (for each member of their family), and those that have spent blood and tears and have put together enough money to purchase their first motorcycle or first car. It would be quite alright for us to suggest to the first category, that enough is enough, they might as well start using cycles and public transport; while on the other hand, to tell (either directly or indirectly) those who have only just got their first vehicle, that their desire is bad and that they need to move to cycles and public transport, especially given the state of public transport in Goa today, would be positively cruel. As was argued in an earlier column, even while we attempt to reduce the number of vehicles on our streets, NoMoZo, would have to effectively recognize that the purchase of vehicles is fueling a social need of the claiming of respect, and this is something that we will have to live with.

A second way in which we have to ground our dreams for NoMoZo, is to recognize that Panjim enjoys a certain relationship with the peri-urban spaces around it. A vast majority of the people that use Panjim as an urban centre do not in fact live in Panjim, or even around Panjim, but often at great distances away from Panjim. It is going to be practically impossible to tell them to use cycles in Panjim, even if one makes provisions for the public transport system leading into Panjim to be fitted with cycle carriers. There is simply no way in which we can enable so many people to use public transport to transport their cycles into Panjim. In such a case, we need to recognize that alongside the creation of reliable public transport within the city of Panjim, we need to also create a system of reliable state-wide public transport that allows people to travel between Panjim and their homes and back with the greatest of ease possible.

The Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar seems to have got this little detail right. In a recent interview he indicated that unless the manner in which the bus-system operated was changed, how could he expect people to give up their air-conditioned vehicles and travel by public transport? Mr. Parrikar, may also have been the force behind the brilliant innovations of the Kadamba Transport Corporation (KTC) some years ago; in particular the shuttle services between the main cities in Goa. For those who wanted to abandon their vehicles at home and travel by public transport (even if not air-conditioned) this was a dream come true. As with all things however, the system slipped after its initial enthusiasm, becoming extremely unreliable. The questions that NoMoZo should ideally start encouraging the public to pose is this, can this system be pulled back to its former ‘glory’? Can this system be replicated by creating hubs in larger villages from where one can catch similar shuttles into the major cities in Goa? Thus, for example, could we take a shuttle from Aldona to Panjim or Mapusa, instead of having to travel to Mapusa and then taking the shuttle to Panjim? More importantly, does this system necessarily have to be led by the KTC, or can we ensure that the private bus operators are able to fulfill this function effectively? Mr. Parrikar may in fact be the right person to set this process in order, given not only his much-lauded desire for instituting discipline, as well as his sympathy for some form of privatization. It is when we take an empathetic view of our society, that we would believe that it is possible, under the right combination of incentive and punishment, to get the existing entrepreneurs to work in the larger public interest. Our general attitude would invariably be to dismiss these entrepreneurs as irresponsible and uninterested in the public good. If NoMoZo is about giving our cities another chance, it should also encompass giving our people a second chance.

An empathetic view of society would understand that making NoMoZo a reality is not simply about asking people to take pledges to give up something, nor about offering technological fixes for our problems. It is about recognizing that NoMoZo is really a popularly led policy initiative, and like all policy initiatives, needs to be based on a comprehensive understanding of the society it is seeking to benefit. Understand the needs of the society, the constraints that force people to act in particular manners, and one will not need people to see the changes as sacrifices. On the contrary, they will automatically embrace the proposed changes.

With luck to NoMoZo’s third installment, scheduled for Sunday, the fifteenth of July on 18 June Road.

(A version of this post first appeared in print in the Gomantak Times dtd 11 July 2012)

1 comment:

Ashley do Rosario said...

Absolutely agree with the sentiment. I'm afraid the NoMoZo effort (no personal offense meant to those involved and many are my personal friends) is getting reduced to a 'fortnightly picnic' and is on its way to end up like the previous sanjit rodrigues brainwaves -- Panjim Chak-a-Chak and Together for Panjim.
How about NoMoZo on a working day??