Saturday, May 31, 2008

I wonder if any of our State officials have tried crossing the Kaloor main road? It takes a heavy dose of courage, a gymnast’s agility and a dancer’s limberness to manure through the frenzied traffic, which I highly doubt any of our officials, traversing in their air-conditioned cars and fattened by years of tax money, possess. Lying sandwiched between the Mathrubhumi Newspaper Office and St. Anthony’s Church on one side and the NUALS University, the Polytechnic Higher Secondary School and a plethora of miscellaneous shops on the other, its very easily one of the most hazardous areas in Kochi city. A very conveniently placed Bus stand, 2 official bus stops and a volley of unofficial ones on either side ensure a constant supply of buses, who vie with each other for passengers and road dominance and in the process scare pedestrians silly with their hit and miss antics.

That apart, their other vehicular brethren have not made pedestrian movement any easier. The constant rush of traffic, amplified by the Tuesday’s mass held at the Church has sent more than one traffic policeman running for his life. There are no medians to speak of, except one at the very beginning of the road where it meets with the Kathrikaddavu road at crossroads, latter to taper of for no reason. No policeman to date has ventured past the tail end of the median. However, there is a footpath in name, which, given Kerala’s erratic monsoons, mostly finds itself in a condition much worse than the most pathetic of gutters. It’s quite hilarious, during the heavy rains, to see people hop and dodge from one foot to the other, unsure, whether they’re next foothold would be the footpath or the gutter!

A constant supply of emails, letters and petitions from the local inhabitants continue to harass the city officials who remain perpetually mum on the subject. The area is shared by at least 5 educational institutions – The Greets Academy School, The Commercial Institute, The National University of Advanced Legal Studies, The Polytechnic Higher Secondary School and the Baalawadi. All five have repeatedly requested for traffic policemen, a zebra crossing, a median or a flyover. The last suggestion was the very first to be discarded on grounds of being impractical. The first request was duly met but the uncontrollable traffic rush sent the poor man packing. The second, strangely enough, had city officials tarring and polishing the road all over again while the third was, in a moment of inspiration, complied with in the most interesting manner. One morning the inhabitants of Kaloor woke up to find the Kaloor road neatly divided by a strategically placed row of neon-orange, cone-like structures. Befuddled pedestrians and bus passengers alike stared, as did bemused drivers, who, unable to discern their purpose, drove carefully through the demarcated road. Thus, for a while peace reigned, traffic became regulated and pedestrians no longer crossed the road worrying about not having made their last will and testament.

It took a maximum of 3 days for drivers to realize that the orange, overgrown clown-caps were temporary medians with which the city officials had very craftily duped them into following traffic rules. The very next morning Kaloor inhabitants woke up to find the orange columns in disarray and the traffic slowly returning to its usual chaotic pace. And inspite of having to once again harass city officials and worry about not having set their affairs to order, pedestrians allow themselves an indulgent grin at the thought of 3 days of artificial serenity imposed on their road…

Sidewalks and story from Hyderabad

I found an interesting story from Hyderabad where a group fights for the rights of pedestrians. In US, there are agencies which conduct the pedestrian audits. Details on pedestrian audits shall be discussed in the next post.

Gurucharan Das writes in TOI;

When the Bus Rapid Transport (BRT) fiasco was being discussed in a high-level meeting in Delhi, a dazzling thought came into the head of a senior official. "Why don't we just get rid of the footpath!" he exclaimed triumphantly. Someone gently pointed out to the worthy administrator that his wife also happened to walk on the same street daily and what would she say about eliminating the footpath?

What Americans call a sidewalk, and the British a pavement, we call a footpath. In romantic minds it conjures images of tree-lined boulevards and sidewalk cafes in gay Paris. But in a typical Indian town, let the mind focus on the image of children walking home from school on a busy road without a footpath. A lorry comes hurtling at them at 70 km per hour, and suddenly those children could be yours. In a nation where people mostly walk, it is frightening that footpaths are non-existent or disappearing. We build roads for cars — pedestrians are a nuisance. Where footpaths do exist in a few cities, they have either been encroached upon or filled with garbage or taken over by hawkers, litterers and urinaters. Walking to the bazaar is not for the faint hearted.

Kanthi Kannan, a lady in Hyderabad, has started 'The Right to Walk' movement to address this problem. She filed a Public Interest Litigation in 2005 praying for the Andhra High Court to save footpaths in her neighbourhood. She bombarded municipal officials with Right to Information emails, asking why the width of the footpath leading from Mehdipatnam to Sarojini Devi Eye Hospital had been reduced and a structure resembling a Dargah built upon it. By March 2008, her efforts had met with some success. Footpaths were restored, parking forbidden on them, but the structure remained untouched. She discovered that no one is responsible for footpaths. The municipality thinks it is a problem of the Roads and Buildings Department, which denies it and says its job is only to build roads.

Mumbai used to be wonderfully endowed with broad sidewalks. I worked there in the 1980s when the municipality approached my company, asking us to build a narrow garden along the long stretch from Mahalaxmi Station to King George's hospital. They wanted us to illegally encroach upon the footpath in order to prevent squatters from taking it over. Such was the political power of the squatters! We did build a lovely, longish garden along E Moses Rd but i felt guilty about cutting into the walking surface. I consoled myself that at least the pedestrians were now walking along flowers, grass and trees.

Prosperity is beginning to spread in India but happiness is not. This is because our government repeatedly fails to provide simple public goods which citizens in other nations take for granted. Footpaths are one of them. It may seem churlish to worry about footpaths when there are more pressing problems of hunger, illiteracy and water. Remember, however, India's future rests in its cities. By 2020, half of India will be urban, middle class, and crowded. What will be the point of becoming prosperous if it isn't safe to walk?

Kanthi Kannan's noble example shows that instead of sitting around and complaining, citizens can make a difference. The starting point is to extend your circle of concern beyond your front door (as Yudhishthira did in the Mahabharata when he insisted on taking a stray dog into heaven). You will discover that municipalities do respond to citizen pressure if citizens are united and relentless. Demand footpaths but don't be surprised if they demolish your proud garden if it encroaches on the pavement.

Roads in Cochin

The major road in Cochin is Mahatma Gandhi Road. Most of the times when i drive down this road, i realize how badly this road is managed. There is no proper definition for any of the roads in city. If we conduct a pedestrian audit, it will end up with court litigations since they are not following Indian Road Congress guidelines and standards. There is no space for the pedestrians and cyclists. Unfortunately, we do not have a planning process where we give importance to pedestrians leave alone the cyclists. The city is crowded like anything that no one will dare to the non pollutant cycles to the streets. Bottlenecks at the two ends of the city; South and North railway over bridges are the other two perennial problems. For the last two years, Kaloor - Kadavantra Subash Chandra Bose Road has been shut. I wonder what happened to the informed citizenry of this city. They are alarmingly silent on these issues. I suspect it may lead to a hostile situation.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Real estate price in Cochin

As city grows, the real estate price also soars. Demands for housing and office spaces are noteworthy. Is there any way to balance the real estate value with the actual valuation of the plots needed. Unfortuanately, there has been no debate on cochin master plan and the zoning issues. Cochin Corporation shall publish the master plan details to create an informed citizenary. The land records shall go digital so that the valuation shall be transparent. Can Floor Scale Index play a major role in real estate valuation in cochin city?

Public Transport System

While we complain about the minuscule road development projects in city, we shall understand the role of Public Transport system can play in the city. Compared to many other cities, Cochin has critical mass of public transport system dominated by Private buses. These buses are well connected to the different regions of the district. Still, we see the the endless queuing up of these buses at most of the busiest traffic islands. At the same time, Cochin city area witnesses the influx of private motor vehicles mostly the cars. They also add to the city traffic.

I was under the impression that the public transport system is very bad in city. Later on i have realised that it is better than many other cities if the density of the operated buses considered. I talked to many who are frequent commuters in the city buses and those who take private vehicles to the Road. To most of them, the buses give better options in city. Yet they switch over to the private vehicles as a result of traffic snag that they experience every time. If that is the case, it is applicable to your private vehicles also if they hit the city road. Then i was surprised by another interesting observation. In a feudal society like that of Kerala, no one wants to rub their shoulders with their fellow passengers in a crowded buses. Moreover it gives a status for the passenger if he/she travels by his/her own cars. Story is different if some one takes two wheelers to the road. Most of them commented that Two wheelers are the best mode of transportation during the peak hours as the city offers many parallel openings from the main roads to escape from the traffic snarls. It reminds me on another issue in city; too many bus stops. I may sound unethical but this is true in city transport system. Some one was commenting that there need not be a bus stop for the bus to stop. It is correct observation. The buses stop everywhere in city blocking the line of traffic. Every two hundred meters, bus stops are there in the city.This is a ridiculous arrangement. In order to save a smooth traffic flow, the authorities have to enforce discipline and management starting with the rearrangement of bus stops in city.

I was wondering in a state like Kerala, where HDI is very high and per capita income is on an average is superior to many other cities, when can we travel by Air Conditioned public transport? If the issue is rubbing shoulders with swanky and sweat fellow passengers, why can't we operate air conditioned buses. That may attract many moving from private vehicles to public transport again. Why dont we have A/c buses for Ernakulam - Pirvam, Ernakulam - Aluva routes?

Monday, May 26, 2008

‘What’s the matter with Kochi?’ Good question. With all due respect, I’d say - Attitude! One can’t deny that people’s complacence has contributed to the majority of day-to-day problems we “Kochietes” face, but I think its time we stopped bemoaning it. Everyone complains that potholes are growing, the roads seem to get narrower and that the drainage system has literally flowed up to our doorsteps, but what has anyone done about it? It’s almost synonymous to our other hobby of putting up a token protest when even a hint of some new development springs up. You’ll immediately see a couple of people, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk, holding up a bunch of pluck-cards with something akin to a vague gripe scribbled on it. Do they know what it is that they’re protesting? Is it for the right reasons? And more importantly, is it a political propaganda or for themselves? I’m often tempted to ask them if they’re for hire!

And this unique ‘attitude-phenomenon’ doesn’t just end there. When the general populace faces a problem, they believe it to be another’s to rectify. They’ll talk about it on any platform you like, they’ll even yell from the rooftops, but they refuse to accept that they’re as much a stakeholder as the local government and municipalities. Where Residential Societies and Building Associations take great pride in putting up parties and organizing trips, they grow strangely silent when its time to bring about a petition to do something about that ‘hole in the ground’! But, they’d have complained to their neighbour about how difficult it is to take their cars around it…

I also refuse to accept the adage that “may be the youngsters can…” because its not just the youngsters who use the roads or the haphazard state transport… a joint, coordinated effort on the side of everyone involved would be a good beginning.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What had happened to Kochi? if we analyze the problems that Kochi faces, we can find an interesting fact, that the root cause for most problems faced by Kochi can be attributed to negligence to stick to the basics. For instance, everyone is ecstatic about the multi million Metro Rail project, but no one is ready to advocate for the repairs of the city roads which has a budget of a few lakhs of Rupees. People are not willing to look into those perils which require our immediate attention. It is interesting that most serious problems have their origin in relatively simpler stuffs, for example, these days, we are experiencing serious serious traffic jams in the small stretch of road between the North over-bridge and Kacheripadi; this is attributable to a gutter in the road, right infront of Popular Mill stores. A few days back, this gutter was a very small one, however, neglect from the part of people and authorities have caused it to grow in size. Today, the gutter eats up hours of each inhabitant of Kochi and also causes hundreds of liters of Petrol to be wasted each day. It is high time that we get back to our basics, try to solve those simpler problems, which left unattended, will seriously jeopardize our interests in having a developed city. It is a fundamental fact that inorder to build a multi-story ed building, you need to have a firm foundation. Similarly, inorder to implement huge projects, we need to get our basics right, we need to shift our focus to those simpler things, makesure they are set right and then, slowly, progress to our set goals.