Tuesday, February 17, 2009

No Street-side stalls, No Sidewalks: Foundations for an unsafe and gridlocked Panjim City

There are two parallel processes currently on in the city of Panjim that paints for us a picture of the future of the city. The picture that emerges from these two processes is not very pretty.

The first of the two processes is the evacuation of the street-side stalls (gadas) from various parts of Panjim city. This evacuation of the stalls should not be seen as a bolt out of the blue. It is merely the conclusion of a process that was set in motion approximately half a decade ago when a group of ‘conscientious’ citizens pleaded before the High Court that the presence of these stalls impeded the free and unrestricted access of pedestrians in the city of Panjim. A whole vision was conjured up, one that compared Panjim city to the cities in the more developed parts of the world. It was argued that if we wanted a fair impression of our city, and a respect for the rights of pedestrians, then these stalls would have to be removed. In response to this petition, the stalls were removed from various parts of the city and concentrated in two areas; the first around the park behind the Printing Press and the second on the street by the Masano do Amorim. It is possible that these owners of these stalls thought that their miseries were over, however experience of the operation of the Indian developmental state, clearly indicates that these expectations were clearly foolish. Once you are pushed out of a location, then it is only a matter of time, before you are finished-off completely. This has been the experience of rural communities displaced for developmental projects, and the experience of other communities displaced in urban contexts for ‘the greater good of all’.

There doesn’t seem to have been any serious argument forwarded that the discrete location of these street-side stalls catered to the healthy functioning of the city, as it serviced small needs of homes and offices in the area, and the needs of persons of marginal economic means. The concentration of these stalls in two areas was in fact a displacement from their meaningful context. Setting the owners of these stalls up in the new market complex may address the issue of their livelihood, but what will it do to the economic and social life of the city? Will it force us to travel (not walk) longer distances for the small essentials that these shops sold? Will it kill the activity on our streets thereby creating empty roads that are the perfect setting for criminal and anti-social activity?

Before I move on to the next point, I would like to stress that a main plank of the arguments against these stalls was that they were encroaching on to public space and preventing easy pedestrian access to the side walk on which they were located.

The second process that is unfolding in Panjim city is the covering over of the road-side gutters with cement grilles. This process should normally be welcome, except that the process of covering the gutter, has resulted in the erasure of difference between the road and the side-walk. The two areas, once clearly demarcated by the presence of an open gutter have in many places merged into one single area. The result of this merging is that we already have vehicles encroaching onto the sidewalk, vehicles being parked on the side-walk leaving no space for the humble pedestrian. In addition, it has created the context to create rouge traffic in the city.

If the displacement of the street-side stalls was about the opening up of space for pedestrians, then the second process is clearly operating contrary to this logic. It appears that, as is the case with most Indian cities, Panjim too is giving way to the cancer that is eating up our cities. The road is eating away at the city to create the city as a space for the new deity of our age, the automobile. The logic of the automobile is dictating our decisions, even as we see our cities morphing into spaces that are unlivable thanks to the cancerous growth of the road.

The two processes ongoing in Panjim make sense if we examine the whole issue from a class-sensitive point of view. The persons who initially moved the petition against the street-side carts are not those who normally walk or cycle through the city, they are elites who are more used to driving through the city and making their purchases at either upmarket stores, or at the central market in Panjim. The street-side stall therefore operated only as an eye-sore to them, a place where the lower order gathered. The rhetoric of the pedestrian was therefore merely a tool to mask their cosmetic agenda of creating a pretty view of the city as they drove past. The simultaneous process of the widening of the roads to include the sidewalks only serves to underline the truth of my suggestion. There is a disdain being displayed here for the rights of pedestrians, disabled, children, aged and cyclists, who use the side-walks and rely on boundaries between the road and the side-walk for their safety. The expansion of the road benefits only the automobile owner, who is by and large, a member of the middle class.

The picture that emerges for Panjim city is a city that operates to service the automobile and the classes that can access the automobile. This does not augur well either for the aesthetics of our city, nor for the safety of the denizens of the city. The city would be much better served if the city catered to all segments of the citizenry, catering to them via street-side stalls, central markets and up-market stores. The city would be a much safer place if it were made pedestrian (and disabled person) friendly. The city would be much safer if it encouraged a street-life that ensures a public eye on the streets at almost all times of the day. This public eye is generated through the provision for street-cafes and pedestrian zones. The city would be much healthier if it created a movement-network that encouraged walking, cycling in association with reliable and (disabled) people-friendly public transport, rather than catering to the all(oil)-consuming, pollutant-spewing private automobile.

There is a certain refusal to share that marks our times. In this case a refusal to share public space with the economically and socially marginal. What is unfolding in Panjim is a part of this process. We would all be better served if we stood up in defence of the rights of street-side stalls to discreetly place themselves on our streets. We would be better served if we stood up and demanded that our side-walks be made secure for pedestrians, that segments of roads be marked out for cyclists and for public transport that has right of way. In so many ways Goa is lucky to still have these options before us. If we don’t seize these options now, we will wind up making our cities and towns unsafe and impersonal spaces, full of smog-belching vehicles in grid-lock.

(Published in the Gomantak Times 18th Feb 2009)


Anonymous said...

i dont think its so much the culture of sharing as much as it is the culture of rule breaking that leads to the apathetic mess you describe. Encroaching space - whether its breaking a red light, or parking on the sidewalk etc. etc. is a root cause of latent road rage in our cities. Everytime you cut a red light, you are a scamster, rule breaker and a fraud - much like mr. raju. Everytime you bully your way through, expecting everyone else to follow the rules while you non chalantly break them - leads to the actual experience we all feel on our roads. Its not just a class conspiracy. All rule breakers, regardless of class, are guilty!

Anonymous said...

Hi Jason,

My first comment on your blog. I think your posts and articles are excellent. You have the gift of writing succinctly what the rest of us feel.

I particularly agree with this one, as it is one close to my heart. Chryselle feels strongly about this too.

I'll send you a fecebook message to discuss this further.

All the best, & keep writing your mind,


Anonymous said...

No one who drives a car ever thinks of themselves as an encroacher, when in fact they take up an often unjustifiable amount of space on roads, pavements and public places. The issue is not about what is legal and illegal - and there is no point getting stuck into that (as in roy's comment). And as for road rage... do you really care about that? Enraged motorists may eventually discover it is more peaceful to leave their cars at home! :)
On a more positive note, you know Nanded town in Maharashtra are re-making their highway-style roads into wide pavements (with open places for stalls), trees, lanes for non-motorised vehicles etc - leaving much narrower roads for cars to make slow and orderly process. Similarly Mysore - where apparently the city have decided they don't want to spoil their city with flyovers.