Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Putting the citizen first: Creeks, forts, heritage and the citizen

The attempt to revive the creek that runs through Campal and Tonca, and sometimes erroneously called ‘Campal Creek’ is one of the many urban regeneration projects that animates Panjim’s citizens these days. This is a happy occurrence and we must all hope that the initiative will come to fruition. An earlier reflection on this column had observed that what marked Indo-Portuguese architecture, was not merely an interaction between Goa and Portugal, but in fact an interaction by Goa with Europe. In this context then, the inspiration that Amsterdam’s canals and bridges provide to the Campal Creek project is a continuation of this longer tradition. Given that the project is being led by citizens from the generally more well-to-do area of Campal, the project continues another tradition, in this case the Dutch tradition where the canals of Amsterdam were the product of an active initiative of the Dutch elites of centuries past.

However, what we need to also remember that Amsterdam, and its pretty canals and bridges were not always this pretty. On the contrary, for a very, very long time, and until fairly recently, the canals of the city were receptacles for the city’s sewage. Indeed, it was only in 1987 that the last house to send its sewage into the canals was connected to a sewerage system. What is important to note then, is that the Amsterdam project, if one can put it that way, is a continuing one. What is also important to note, is that this project was not motivated by the possibility of gaining tourist visits to the city. Rather, it was motivated by making the city more livable, providing a better quality–of-life to its citizens. Thus, in addition to the joy rides that tourists may enjoy on the canals, and walking around the streets, the canals are also used as a source of regular transport for its citizens.

This location of the citizen, rather than the tourist, is important for us to bear in mind in the course of engaging not only with urban regeneration projects, but also the variety of heritage restoration projects that one sees around our State.

This observation holds particular importance in the context of the recent completion of the restoration of the Reis Magos fort. In the past few years there have been a number of restoration works that have been carried out on heritage buildings that are the property of the State. These include the Forts at Tiracol, Reis Magos, Santo Estevam, as well as the premises of the former Escola Medica.  A news report in the Times of India on May 31 pointed out that the Government does not seem to have a policy that would cover adaptive reuse of heritage structures that belong to the State. A number of people, especially those intimately involved with heritage conservation, make the argument for adaptive reuse, stressing at the same time the need for “revenue generation through cultural tourism”.  Regardless of whether it is linked to cultural tourism or not, what has to be recognized is that once the question of the decay of the monument has been addressed, the issue of generating resources for its upkeep become important.

The question however, is to inquire into the manner in which the resources for this requirement will be generated. This is where the question of choice, between placing the citizen or the tourist, at the heart of the project comes into being. Given the manner in which tourism is such a critical part of the Goan economy, all too often tourism, cultural or otherwise, becomes a focus of our options for adaptive reuse. In this context, the words of the Chief Minister are somewhat disturbing. He is reported to have indicated that “the fort would have to find a way to make itself commercially viable” indicating that "The government is good at building, not maintaining." It was perhaps under similar logic that the location of a mall-shopping arcade was contemplated within the refurbished Escola Medica.

We must recognize however, that such logic is indication of an abdication of the responsibilities of the State, creating the grounds for the privatization of public resources. The argument that this column would make, an argument that is perhaps not different from those others in the heritage conservation groups are also making, is that it is possible for the monument to address the local community first, and simultaneously also address the larger interests of cultural tourism in the State.
It is in this context that Amsterdam in particular, and Europe in general can be used as an interesting case to learn from. Social spending, in catering to the citizen, educating them, and opening cultural options for them, is what simultaneously generates the options for cultural tourism. It was not catering to the tourist that generated its prettiness, but catering to the citizen first. Even though the European economy is now in crisis, it must be pointed out that this crisis should not be used to suggest that the model of social spending was the problem. On the contrary, to use the words from The New Yorker “social democracy in Europe, embodied by its union, has been one of the greatest successes in history.” And further “A continent torn by the two most horrible wars in history achieved a remarkable half century of peace and prosperity, based on a marriage of liberalism properly so called (individual freedoms, including the entrepreneurial kind) and socialism rightly so ordered (as an equitable care for the common good). Any pleasure taken in the failure of Europe to expunge all its demons threatens to become one more way of not having to examine our own.”

This advice was given to the USA, however, we in India, with our elitist biases in the working of democracy would do well to take heed and find the governmental resources to support adaptive reuse the works to make refurbished monuments, locations for the edification and personal growth of our citizens. This would only work as a wise investment, creating citizens who would be able to spin more creative concepts than perhaps the less-challenged governmental departments in charge of tourism. Such an option need not necessarily preclude entrepreneurial intervention, but we must be clear that high-end malls and boutique hotels do not seem to constitute the kinds of projects that can meet this larger end, given that they actively exclude, even as they may generate some revenue for the State. What we must bear in mind however, is that these investments should be evaluated not merely for commercial viability, but from the kind of human-resource generation that they provide.

In welcoming the Reis Magos fort back to life, and wishing the Campal project a similar trajectory, perhaps we should also make space for the citizen at the centre of our plans, and not only the tourist.

(A version of this post was first published in the Gomantak Times 13 June 2012)

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