DOWN TO EARTH, 400th Edition, 5th January, 2009
Arnab Pratim Dutta and Meeta Ahlawat
A festival helped a small town in Punjab discover car-free mobility
Fazilka is a small, 162 year-old town on the India-Pakistan border in Ferozepur district. Its unkempt, garbage-strewn congested streets with small, bustling shops are nothing out of the ordinary. But this town of about 68,000 people—and about 45,000 vehicles on its narrow lanes—has removed one source of congestion: cars.
From November 21 this year, it has banned the entry of cars in the main market around the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) between 10 am, when most shops open, and 7 pm, when the shopkeepers head home. Two wheelers are allowed, but the town plans to take care of them gradually. This despite opposition to the ban initially, especially from shopkeepers who feared losing clientele.
Fazilka’s unusual story began with a festival in 2006. In the last week of March that year, a citizens’ group of about 250 people called Graduates Welfare Association Fazilka (GWAF) organized the Fazilka Heritage Festival.
For this, a stretch of 300 metres on the Sadhu Ashram Road, not far from the current car-free zone, was converted into a pedestrian street.
The festival was a success, said Bhupender Singh, a retired professor of mechanical engineering studies at iit Roorkee and an architect of this project.
“Without cars, there was a lot of road space for everybody. There were stalls selling everything from food to handicrafts and people danced on the streets without the fear of being run over,” he added.
Festivals change cities
The festival was held again next year, though at a different location: the Salem Shah East West Corridor, which crosses the Ghanta Ghar, was chosen.
This time, the car-free zone extended about a kilometre. The festival went down well with the residents and set the tone for a dedicated car-free zone.
“It is only logical that first the most congested area of the town should be freed from traffic,” said Navdeep Asija, project manager of the Punjab Roads and Bridges Development Board, now based in Chandigarh. Asija had been studying the town’s traffic problems since 2006. “Fazilka is approximately 10.29 sq km big with each side spanning just a little over three kilometres. It can easily become a pedestrian’s city, with motorized vehicles used primarily for transportation of goods.”
The festivals alone did not ensure a permanent car-free zone. gwaf was trying to convince the municipality to designate a car-free zone. Initially, the shopkeepers were not too keen on the idea as they thought it would drive away customers, said Asija, adding that the municipality feared protests.
The stalemate continued till September 2008, when Anil Sethi took over as the president of the municipal committee. A trader himself, Sethi heard gwaf’s idea of a car-free zone, got interested, and set about implementing it. He considered such a scheme beneficial to Ghanta Ghar shopkeepers because it would decongest the area. Sethi’s clout among the traders helped him convince them.
In the following month Sethi, along with gwaf members, held several meetings with traders and their associations for creating consensus. “It was mainly the wholesellers who were against the scheme. They thought it would obstruct the movement of their goods. But we convinced them,” said Sethi.
The Ghanta Ghar market has three roads jutting out of it in three different directions. The lane encircling the Ghanta Ghar is about 200 metres long and is now free of traffic as the three roads have been barricaded. About 800 metres of the road connecting Hotel Bazar in the north to Wool Bazar in the south has been blocked. Another 400 metres of the Salem Shah Road on the east, starting at Sarafan Bazar, has been barricaded. The fourth arm in the west had already been blocked by a temple.
Profits follow car ban
Once apprehensive, the shopkeepers in the Ghanta Ghar market are happy with the ban now. There is no official monitoring of pollution in Fazilka, but shopkeepers claim the air is cleaner. "I used to keep a jug of water for my staff and customers. Before the car ban, I had to change the water every hour as it would turn dirty," said Vicky Chabbra, owner of Fancy Bartan Store, a utensils shop. "Now, it remains in the jug for an entire day and still looks clear." Chabbra said sales in his shop have increased 25 per cent since the ban.
One less wheel, more convenience
Roshan Lal, who sells chaat a few metres away from the utensils shop, corroborates Chabbra. "People have more time now. They come and enjoy their food without being hassled about whether their cars are blocking the road," Lal said. Vikram Ahuja, owner of Zamindara Farm Solutions, wants the concept replicated in other parts of the town. "Fazilka is a small town; one can easily walk from one corner to the other," he said.
The car-free zone has spurred many an ambitious dream. There are talks of converting the Ghanta Ghar market into a pedestrian mall, with brightly coloured shops selling everything from cotton handkerchiefs to LCD televisions. There are plans to renovate a section of the market and make it an exclusive food court.
Sethi plans to free most of the city of cars eventually. Asija mentioned the next street to be freed of cars: about 800 metres of the Bank Street running parallel to the north-South Street would be brought under regulation.
There is a popular desire to see municipal president Sethi win the world's best mayor award for successfully making a part of the city an eco-healthy zone.
In tune with a car-free zone, the Graduates Welfare Association Fazilka promotes cycle rickshaws—as ecocabs. There are about five rickshaw unions in Fazilka, each registered over 40 years ago. Talking about Fazilka’s innovative ecocab project, which works much along the dial-a-cab line, Umesh Kukkar, association president, said, “The rickshaws and their union already existed; all we had to do was organize them.”
The scheme provided relief to a public health problem in Fazilka: fluorosis. The Geological Survey of India had had said a few years ago that Fazilka should be put on fluoride red alert. Studies have shown that the fluoride content in tubewell water in Fazilka is 6-12 mg per litre—four to eight times the standard. Almost 70 per cent of Fazilka’s population suffers from dental decay.
Pain and damage to joints are common (see ‘Flooded with fluoride’, Down to Earth, March 31, 2003). The dial-a-rickshaw business, launched in June 2008, has been a hit, especially among the elderly, more vulnerable to fluorosis-related joint pains.
“It is convenient because you have a mode of transport round the clock, which is not just economical but also ecologically friendly,” said Pritam Kaur, retired principal of a girls’ senior secondary school.
To call a rickshaw, residents can call one of five lines that are widely advertised. The call centres are located at five rickshaw stands across the town; rickshaw pullers manage these themselves.
Once a call is made for a rickshaw, it makes a house call and picks up the customer. “The rickshaws usually take about five minutes to reach a house; all rickshaw stands are strategically located at no more than 500 metres from any given locality,” said Navdeep Asija.
The rickshaws do not charge for the house call. Trip charges are fixed: Rs 10 for one passenger and Rs 15 for two passengers—for any destination in the city.
On an average every rickshaw stand gets up to 50 calls per day, said Manjinder Singh, president of Fazilka Rickshaw Union. “Earlier, we used to make about 10 trips per day. After the call centre opened, the number of trips increased to 15,” he said.
About 450 rickshaws are enrolled under the Ecocab scheme.
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