Imphal roads blind to needs of cyclists and pedestrians

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By Pradip Phanjoubam

Many of the major roads in the Imphal area have improved. Or have they? The answer will depend on what we are looking for, and indeed there are very many things to be looked for in what can be defined as a good road. My answer to this question with reference to the new initiatives for improving the physical quality of roads in and around Imphal would be ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in equal measures.

The answer is ‘yes’, for the tarmac quality has indeed improved. Maybe there is a different set of contractors doing these jobs more honestly, or maybe the engineers supervising their constructions have suddenly become more committed to their jobs. Whatever the case may be, the roads do look a lot more solid than the single season black-toppings barely able to last out one monsoon that Imphal, and indeed the entire state, has come to be so used to. We do hope a change for the better is sweeping the state in this field, notorious for decades for executing work orders only on papers and billing for work never seen as completed on the ground in what has come to be known as ‘sky bills’ – an organized collaborative robbery of public money by a coterie of contractors, concerned government officials, and not to be left behind, ministers handling the charge.

The answer is also ‘no’, because there are many more to a good road than the quality, breath and length of the tarmacs on which motor vehicles ply. While it is true a lot has improved towards comfort and convenience of vehicle users, road planners and constructors seem to suffer from a myopia which do not make them see beyond what the roads mean for motor vehicle users. On an incremental basis, roads in Imphal bear testimony to the blindness of these policy makers and their executive wings, to pedestrians and cyclists. It is as if these class of road users do not exist. This blindness extends much farther, but first things first.

Development, in today’s world, is no longer defined solely in terms of material benefits and comforts. It now includes very much the notion of ‘human development’ which brings in factors like social equity, health care standards for everybody, gender equality, eco friendliness, general sense of wellbeing etc. In the evolution of this notion of development, we know with pride liberal thinkers such as Amartya Sen and Joseph Stiglitz did yeoman work. This being the case, the definition of a developed society is also fast undergoing a transformation.

A familiar metaphor in defining development now says a developed society is not one in which even the poor can afford cars, but one in which even the rich prefer travel by public transport. Therefore, we do often get to read of how even former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, travels by city buses and metro train services. This is again another area where Manipur has failed completely. There is no longer any public transport facility worth the name. The Manipur State Transport, MST, which later became Manipur State Road Transport Corporation, MSRTC, is today at best a fading memory.

Alongside this metaphor of modes of travel by rich and poor, is another which defines a progressive city. This one says such a city is one which has reverted in a major way to bicycles. We again often read American writers lamenting how American cities have lagged behind their European counterparts in this regards, and how efforts are being made to augment the situation to bring American cities at a par with European ones in this transformation.

Contrary to this trend sweeping the most progressive of societies, the new road building paradigm in Manipur has absolutely no respect for cyclists and pedestrians. In most of these newly laid roads, there is just the black-topped tarmac stretching the entire breath of the road. These black topped tarmacs have therefore to be used by everybody together… big and small vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists. And in such a scenario, it is anybody’s guess as to who would be most inconvenienced and left at risk. Under the circumstance, walking on foot or cycling to work is today becoming a no option. It is true that few or no city in India has respect for cyclists, but probably Imphal would stand out in making it extremely difficult for pedestrians too. In fact it feels almost awkward to take a walk in Imphal these days, except at dawn hours in sports wears as a form of deliberate physical exercise.

In Meitei there is an adage to describe such short sighted visions and drives: ‘Lairik heiraga laishu yaodaba’, which roughly translated would mean ‘to acquire bookish knowledge but without absorbing the wisdom such knowledge point to’. In a way, this is what those pushing for ‘human development’ as a redefining quality for ‘development’ were also saying. Material development, though important, is not everything. It has to be ultimately qualified by human values before it can be a complete project. The physical breath, length and thickness of roads laid in Manipur are important, but before they can be called good, they would also have to first acquire qualities which would make them friendly to all sectors of the society.

In a way, Manipur’s approach to development and modernism is a reflection of the ethos of worship of materialism the whole society is engulfed by. This obsession is also extremely narcissistic, and hence everybody today seems to have come to the conclusion there is nothing more to expensive cars, marble palaces, in the definition of good life. In an economy which does not provide legitimate means for such acquisition of wealth, it is only to be expected that corruption would become the way of those with a hand on the levers of State power. Their narcissistic myopia also prevents them from seeing these expensive cars and palaces springing up in an increasingly brutalised and pauperised environ is grotesque.

This culture nonetheless has led to an explosion of motor vehicle number, but not the road discipline that would prevent chaos on the road such a multiplication can result in. On some roads, there are cycle tracks marked in yellow, but nobody even understands or else is bothered about the significance of these. Hence instead of leaving them for cyclists, they are used almost as if it was meant for the purpose, as roadside car parking area. Not only this, motor vehicle users also seem to have no qualms about parking their cars right in the middle of bridges, a practice forbidden everywhere else in the world. The Singjamei bridge can provide the alibi of this blatant disregard of a universal norm on any given day. In a way, this cannot be blamed on the public altogether, for there have been precious little publicity campaign or consistent enforcement of relevant traffic rules in the state anytime.

It is however not too late to change. Together with ensuring material quality of roads, let it also think of factoring in those attributes the world today thinks, and with extremely good reason, are qualities that make a road reflect progressive thinking. Imphal essentially is still a cycle city as it once was. It would be asking for the impossible to urge the government to have the clock turned back. However, in keeping with the modern enlightened paradigm of progress, let it encourage the return of the cycle as an important form of commuting within Imphal and the state’s other townships. It is eco friendly, will save precious fuel, reduce accident fatalities, and above all, generally keep the society physically healthy. Let its roads have cycle tracks marked out mandatorily and enforce as necessary rules of law to ensure these tracks are used only by cyclists. Together with this, let it also reintroduce pedestrian walkways on its roads. Let these features become a necessary part of future road envisioning.

Devyani Khobragade lesson:

So much for our new road building initiatives, but I would like to end by taking the readers of this column briefly to another issue of relevance to the state. This is about the ugly and unfolding case involving an Indian diplomat in the US. Devyani Khobragade, a senior Indian diplomat in New York, as all of us are more than acutely aware now, was arrested and humiliatingly subjected to body search, including what is described as cavity search, by the New York police a month ago, for allegedly providing false information to visa authorities of the country in order to take a live-in Indian house maid for a salary grossly below the country’s minimum wage standard, again a serious offence in the country.

Much has already been said about the disregard accorded to her status, and the understandable outrage in India and I would not like to comment any further on it. However among the lessons to be learnt is the issue of the strict enforcement of minimum wage standard by the US. So many have jumped to the conclusion that this was double standards on the part of the US, for its show of concern for human rights in this case is undone constantly by its abuses of the same in other arenas. Conceded!

However, I would think the US interest in being extremely stern about its minimum wage standard has another interest quite other than human rights. By ensuring this high minimum wage standard it is protecting local jobs, for if this was not the case, immigrants labour, always a lot more desperate than local job seekers, would be willing to work for a fraction of the wage the locals demand and the capitalist market being what it is, these jobs would quite readily go to the immigrants. This would in the end have huge potential for social unrest. But if potential employers were not allowed to pay below a minimum standard to anybody, the competition for jobs between locals and immigrants would remain fair, and probably local labour would remain the preferred choice of potential employers.

The lesson from this sorry episode then is for any society with a threat of a transformation of their labour market profiles because of continued influx of immigrant labour, to also strictly introduce a minimum wage standard. Nobody should be allowed to pay below this standard, even if the workers concerned are willing to work for less. This would ensure a fair competition for these jobs between locals and immigrants, and quite obviously, employers would continue to prefer local workers.

Manipur is witness to such a transformation and together with it, signs of social unrest. The answer is not to resort to forbidding immigration altogether, as some radicals are seeking. A more humanitarian way of dealing with the problem would be to make sure the labour market remains fair, and under-bidding to win contract is strictly disallowed by the law. Although the matter was handled brutishly, the deeper motive behind the US law that humiliated Khobragade for under paying her maid, is precisely about protecting its local labour market, therefore prevent consequent social unrests.

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