Thursday, January 1, 2009

Small towns can show us the way

Mail Today : 30th December 2008, Delhi
One hears about a small town called Fazilka in Punjab only when war clouds hover over the Indo- Pak borders. The town is located just 11 kilometers off the international border with the other Punjab. But that is not the reason I am writing about Fazilka now. The medieval town deserves a mention for another kind of war — a war to reduce carbon emissions.

Fazilka has become the first town in India to have declared its major business centre car- free. A stretch of 700 to 800 meters has been declared as a car- free zone by the local municipality.

The initiative is the brainchild of Navdeep Asija — a young civil engineer from Fazilka who is pursuing his doctoral research in safe road infrastructure design at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. Navdeep wanted to put in practice his academic knowledge and chose his home town as his laboratory. He energized a local voluntary body — Graduates' Welfare Association — and got technical help from a European body called World Car- free Network. Another local citizen and a retired professor from IIT Roorkee, Dr Bhupinder Singh, also pitched in.

The car- free zone is the first step for Fazilka to qualify as a “ carbon neutral city” in future. A detailed case study and opinion surveys were conducted before the project was launched a month ago. The car- free zone was also preceded by the launch of a “ dial- a rickshaw” service in June this year. Navdeep says though only the main commercial area has been declared car- free, the entire city is behaving as car- free because most car trips are made from home to the commercial area. Since the main street is now car- free, most of the people are opting for the rickshaw service.

Navdeep says it was important to offer the people an alternative — the dial- a- rickshaw service — before going in for a drastic measure like banning the use of motorised vehicles. It is quite a change in a state, where flaunting the latest Mercs or BMWs is a great status symbol, to see people walk or take a rickshaw when going for shopping. The town of 70,000 has more than 4,000 registered cars. The example set by Fazilka is worth emulating in towns of this size and, I would propose, even neighbourhoods in Delhi.

Instead of asking municipalities to build parking lots, bodies of traders and local residents should strive to make shopping areas car- free zones. It would go a long way in decongesting crowded areas, save fuel and make the air we breathe less lethal.

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