Sunday, July 18, 2010

A destination or a highway for others?

A destination or a highway for others?

E Raghavan

Numbers do tell a story on their own even when they are not crunched or analysed. Take, for instance, the proposal to widen over 200 roads in Bangalore so that vehicles can ply freely and traffic bottlenecks are removed to serve that purpose.
A pretty laudable effort if one were to turn blind to other aspects of this development process. When you do not turn a blind eye, other numbers bring in another dimension. According to one figure a civic activist produced, the number of people that will suffer displacement of some sort on account of this road-widening project is an astounding 4lakh families.
These numbers do not tell the complete story — of loss of property, being uprooted from moorings that give one a sense of belonging to a city and a sense of ownership and pride in a city. Because such stories are never heard, a road-widening project becomes a project for the future, completely disregarding pain and suffering of individual families.
At the height of the anti-Semitic Nazi action before World War II, shops and homes of Jews were marked by those who thought only the Aryan race should prevail. The stark reality of a bleak future for those whose houses and shops were marked was well chronicled, but it's only now — when a similar action for entirely non-racist reasons — that the horrific dimension of that kind of markings, of singling out harmless victims, begins to unnerve. The full dimension of that painful experience is never understood because other than those who are directly affected, everyone else thinks of it as a case of loss of a piece of property.
Ask those who will lose a compound, a veranda or a living room, those whose shop will be cut into half. You will then realise that lives of people are being curtailed for more cars and buses to ply on our roads.
For all those who suffer this pain, the authorities promise a piece of paper called TDR (transfer of development rights). At best, it is a piece of paper and nothing else because TDR can never earn them back their loss — physical and emotional. Even the compensation money is often a pittance compared to the actual value of the property lost.
Should development then be abandoned? Not necessarily. But before coming to that conclusion, one should ask what the objective of such development is. Is the city meant for people or is it meant for cars and buses. If there are more cars and buses five years from now than what is projected, will the authorities break up more houses and shops to widen the very same roads again?
A city acquires its own rhythm and character over time. People, who once lived in what is today described as central business district, have moved out having monetised their land and finding a better environment to live. What is to be remembered is that the city is meant for its people, to live, to prosper economically and to secure a future. Cars and buses are only a part of that story. Every major city faces the problem Bangalore faces. But one can't remember reading any stuff about Oxford Street in London or Broadway in New York being ripped apart for more cars to ply.
Mercifully, the minister in charge of Bangalore, R Ashok, has suggested revisiting the proposal to widen roads. He has, as usual, blamed the previous government, forgetting all the while that the Nazi-style marking of properties is happening now. Let us not quibble about that as long as the authorities genuinely take another look at the proposal find a better solution than breaking up the city. As someone pointed out, the authorities need to decide whether they want to make Bangalore a destination or a highway for others to pass through. Being transport minister, Mr Ashok will surely understand what this means.


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