Aniruddha Sengupta witnesses a revolution brewing on a road with a history
Living in Goa has exposed me to an alternative history that is hardly touched upon in schools elsewhere in the country—that of Portuguese rule in India. Here are two incidents from that past that you have perhaps little knowledge of: on June 18, 1946, Ram Manohar Lohia, recovering from ill health in Goa, was the focal point of a political gathering in an open field in Margao, an assembly directly in contravention of Portuguese law at the time. This is generally considered the starting point of the freedom struggle in Goa.
Between July 22 and 24, 1954, a group calling itself the United Front of Goans took control of the enclave of Dadra, the first of the Portuguese territories to fall into Indian hands. Four policemen, including the feared and hated sub-inspector Aniceto Rosario, were killed during this action.
These two events are linked together in the history of a road in Goa’s capital city, Panjim. After the Dadra incident, the Portuguese government—still in charge in Goa—named this road Rua Herois de Dadra in commemoration of the policemen killed in defence of Dadra. Years later, following the Liberation of Goa in 1961, the Indian administration renamed it 18th June Road, in reference to the historic Margao meeting.
It, therefore, seems appropriate that this busy thoroughfare—named successively for two acts of revolution—should feel the winds of a new one sweeping through it. This road, Panjim’s main shopping boulevard, is the target of a citizens’ initiative called NoMoZo, a contraction of Non-Motorised Zone. “The idea is to make the road a permanent pedestrianised area in two years,” says Sanjit Rodrigues, Commissioner in the Corporation of the City of Panjim (CCP). It is an ambitious target—as of now, the road is converted into a NoMoZo for half a day on one Sunday every month. But Rodrigues is confident the goal will be achieved, and he is a man in a hurry. “I work with immense speed because my tenure is uncertain. I must make the best of the time I have.”
Rodrigues is the official cog in the mechanism driving the NoMoZo movement. The rest of the machine is composed of the volunteers of a group that calls itself Aamchi Panaji. A few days after one of the NoMoZo events, I met with a few of the key organisers at a city restaurant. It was a diverse group, a microcosm of Panjim’s citizenry. Richard Dias is a man who has been many things, and currently runs an event management firm. Tallulah D’Silva is an architect who has gained quite a reputation locally as an environmental activist. Jack Ajit Sukhija is an entrepreneur with interests in hospitality and art. Nitish Wagle, the baby of the group in his early twenties, is a recent IIT graduate trying to get a non-conventional educational project under way. There are others, too, who make up Aamchi Panaji—people of a diversity of interests but a unity of purpose, that of stepping up to deal with a problematic aspect of their city.
Our conversation began by harking back to Rodrigues’ last stint as commissioner, which commenced in 2004. “The political scenario was much the same at the time. Manohar Parrikar had just taken over as the chief minister, and Sanjit had been appointed Commissioner,” explains D’Silva. Panjim, which also happens to be Parrikar’s constituency in the Goa Assembly, was singled out for some special attention and a campaign called Together for Panjim was born with the primary purpose of addressing the city’s waste management woes. “It was a successful campaign. So, when Sanjit took over as commissioner this time as well, we were hopeful of getting something useful done again,” continues D’Silva.
D’Silva was one of those involved in devising a comprehensive mobility plan (CMP) for Panjim under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. It was on the basis of one of CMP’s many recommendations that the new project was conceptualised. “The solution is non-obvious,” says Wagle, who, among other things, has been tasked with designing a pedal-powered, multi-person vehicle for people to move around in NoMoZo. “When faced with the problem of traffic congestion, most people suggest expanding roads. This is quite the reverse.”
Dias concurs. “Some people cannot visualise the solution. For them, the basic concept of roads is that they are made for vehicles. Yet, here we are, saying free the road for pedestrians.”
For the long-term goal to work, though, such dramatic departures have to be the norm. Dean D’Cruz, a senior architect who was the key player in devising the Panjim CMP, talks about some of the “revolutionary ideas” that had been conceived. He says: “The plan was to connect open spaces. We mapped the area and found so many spaces that were underutilised, or completely unutilised, that could be brought into the pedestrian flow. The back compounds of existing buildings, for example…”. D’Cruz whips up a quick drawing on a sheet of paper. On visits to friends’ offices, I have seen these same spaces from above, overgrown urban wildernesses splattered with junk and debris. It is not difficult to visualise them converted into plazas with, as D’Cruz suggests, roadside cafes, small vendors of food, alternative shopping option. And lots of room for people to saunter through.
Also visualised, of course, were multi-level parking bays at opposite ends of the city, with a fleet of minibuses and other friendly vehicles to transport people to and from the peripheries, and within the city centre. “Panjim’s geography is well suited for such a solution,” says Rodrigues. “It has these three or four main arteries, more or less parallel to each other, and a limited number of roads feeding into the city centre.”
Rahul Srivastava, an urbanologist in Mumbai, echoes this statement. “Panjim is a walking-friendly city,” he says. 18th June Road is ideally suited for pedestrianisation. “Any difficulty one faces in trying something like this is because people don’t know about the alternatives to the current scenario. Take the shopkeepers for example. They might resist, but experience from similar initiatives elsewhere in the world have shown that footfalls in shops increase with pedestrianisation,” he adds.
Implementing NoMoZo has not been a walk in the park. How can it be? There are a number of government departments that have to be coordinated with—the traffic police, the Public Works Department, the fire department, various arms of CCP. That’s where the inertia tends to be the greatest. Though Rodrigues and the Aamchi Panaji volunteers make light of their troubles on this front, I suspect that response is more to do with the necessity of having the administration’s rank and file on their side than the truth of the matter.
Behind-the-scenes talk reveals that much negotiation has to be undertaken and much resistance battled. Many of the departments, for whom the NoMoZos mean additional work to be done or unaccustomed freedoms to be granted, are hoping for something to go wrong. There have even been rumours of the traffic police posting plainclothes staffers with video cameras hoping to catch some violations that could be used to shut down the initiative. “With local residents and shopkeepers, it has been a lot easier. Once we explain the idea to them, most of them are very supportive. It’s a need they themselves have felt for a long time. We are just showing them how the problem can be addressed,” says Dias.
For the time being, to make the idea popular and palatable, the NoMoZo events have been dressed up in carnival garb. On a NoMoZo morning, even the rainy ones, 18th June Road becomes a playground where kids and adults paint on paper or on the tar, flash mobs whirl, people roll by on skates or cycles, karate students demonstrate moves, quiz clubs test the mental mettle of passersby, games of football, chess and carrom spring up and a good time is had by all.
“The response has been great. But we can’t afford to lose sight of the ultimate goal. This is just fun and games, but what we are aiming for is real change,” says D’Silva. It’s a revolution devoutly to be wished, and this is the road and the city for it.
Aniruddha Sen Gupta is a writer, designer and quizzer who lives in Goa