Reclaiming cities for people: Learning from Corona

mumbai lockdown

There can be some positive gains from the impact of Corona. People can take back , reclaim spaces that belong to them.

In Mumbai the fancy dome of the National Sports Club of India, a site of beauty and fashion pageants, a playground for the rich, has been taken over by the municipal corporation for quarantine.

It is originally a public space and it should have never been handed over to the club. A public stadium named after Vallabhabhai stadium stood on this site. The memory of the leader has been completely erased from the site and it has been converted into a luxury site for entertainment programmes with a seating capacity of some 5000 people and parking of no fewer than 800 cars. Plus there are numerous very flashy dining halls and other sites of consumption. Post Corona, this site needs to be taken back for the city.

Then the civic body has taken over a number of car parking lots for Corona virus testing.

Five private labs — will set up testing centres which will carry out 3,000 tests daily, in 17 parking lots across the city, Hindustan Times reported. The locations include Indiabulls Finance Centre at Prabhadevi; Kohinoor Mill in Dadar; Club Aquaria parking in Borivli (West); Birla Krida Kendra at Chowpatty; service road outside NESCO exhibition centre in Goregaon (East); a parking lot near Hub Mall in Goregaon (West); and parking lots in Byculla, Kalachowki, Sewri, Mulund and Kanjurmarg.

The world over car parking spaces are being reduced as part of a drive to discourage car use. This needs to be emulated in Mumbai without succumbing to the demands of the car lobby. In any case with car sales plummeting and the economic slow down there should be less space for cars. At least some of the present parking lots can be used as public spaces.

There is encouraging news from different parts of the world. The corona crisis has caused rethinking, city administrations are providing for more bicycling facilities and more spaces for walking in view of the increased need for physical distancing.

There is a boom in bicycle sales in Australia and suppliers are finding it difficult to meet demand. Employees of bicycle shops were fearing loss of jobs but now they are being asked not only to stay on but were told they needed more people to work.

If the government in India does a little thinking, it can convert the crisis in the automobile sector to advantage by promoting bicycle manufacturing. It will add to many more jobs. We need to create a cycling culture for ordinary people with ordinary cycles. Fancy and expensive cycles are all right for the upper class but they will never be an answer to the new mobility crisis.

Also, cities will have to completely change their mobility policy. Land use will have to be changed to provide for work near work place so that there is less need to transport people in crowded conditions.

How wrong headed much of our thinking has been is clear from the very expensive and fancy hyperloop project the previous state administration wanted to impose . Richard Branson, the tycoon who wanted to sell the idea, has now himself sought a bailout in Britain because of the loss suffered by his airline. Richard Branson’s bailout plea shows there is no one more shameless, declared the Guardian in a heading of a news story yesterday.

Instead of the coronavirus crisis bringing some kind of reckoning for tax-avoiding opt-outs, it is simply making the biggest culprits even more shameless, the paper reported.

Spaces need to be used more creatively. While so much space is wasted on car parking, space is denied to informal, construction workers standing for a couple of hours seeking work near railway stations . They were criminalised. I know for sure how upper class citizen groups have worked overtime to evict the workers. So we want them to toil in harsh conditions, poor pay and lack of basic amenities to construct our high rise buildings but we do not want to give them even standing space. There are numerous such areas in which planning can be changed to provide better amenities for common people who are so essential to the economy.

Since washing of hands and sanitation are now so important, it is imperative to provide more toilets with proper wash basins and assured water supply. Mumbai is woefully short of public toilets and even these mostly lack wash basins which is a real scandal. I have seen only one decent public toilet in Mumbai and it is at the mainly upper class hang out, Band Stand in Bandra. It is more of a show piece, clean and with nice tiles.

So life can be certainly improved if we bring pressure on the authorities and make them understanding the basics.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book on public transport




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