Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Russell Market after the fire

It was on the morning of 25th Feb 2012 that the fire caused severe destruction at the Russell market in Bangalore. As I stood in front of the Russell market two days after the fire, I saw that the outer fa├žade had not been affected and did not show any external signs of damage. I entered the building and looked towards the popular dry fruit shops to the left, but they weren’t there. It was just a black space with people randomly walking about. One half of the market was functioning, in the other half, the shops and goods had been completely burnt down. I had read in the news article Bangalore’s Russell Market gutted in The Hindu that the fire was believed to have been caused by an electrical short circuit and that 174 shops had been damaged.

As I walked further down the market building, there were people cleaning up the debris – wooden poles that were charred, windows that were wrecked, plastic items that had melted into one blackened mass and objects that couldn’t be identified properly anymore. Some people cleared the debris, others stood there watching. The vendors said that the debris had to be cleared away so that life could go on. Some of them had lost goods worth more than a lakh of rupees since they had stocked up for the weekend when sales at Russell market were twice as much as on weekdays. They said they could not wait for the Municipal Corporation to clean up the mess since the Corporation might take 15 days to cart away the debris.

The vendors say that the BBMP - Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike had suggested that this dilapidated and now damaged structure could be demolished completely so that a new shopping complex with basement parking could be built here. The vendors had decided that they would not vacate the premises since they did not want this heritage building to be brought down. Besides, they were not sure how long the Municipal Corporation would take to complete the work and whether the alternative location provided to the vendors in the meantime would be as good as this one. The vendors now planned to reconstruct the shops themselves in as little time as possible so that their business could continue.

There has been an on-going disagreement between the Vendors at Russell market and the Municipal Corporation about rent prices of shops inside the market building, about maintenance of the interior of the building and about garbage disposal. The vendors do not want to pay the rent that the Corporation thinks appropriate and the Corporation therefore has refrained from maintaining the market building or its surroundings. In an earlier blogpost Oral history at Russell market, I have included excerpts from interviews with the vendors and think that understanding their beliefs and their doubts could lead to working out a better urban regeneration plan for the Russell market precinct which may or may not entirely meet their demands but can be implemented successfully if the communication between the stakeholders and the Government improves considerably.

It is seldom that vendors in a fruit and vegetable market in any part of the world have had their demands met by the City corporation and not often that the City knows how to overcome its own difficulties of managing a market in an expanding Inner city core. I wrote about this earlier at Planning for the transition. The vendors’ want better amenities within the market building so that they can have a more efficient workplace as well as better parking facilities so that they do not lose the customer base they have built up over many years. In a city core that gets denser with an increase in population, increase in commercial activity and an increase in traffic congestion, this is usually difficult to solve.

In a Market redevelopment project, a design solution that takes into consideration the functioning of the entire urban precinct enveloping the site of the fruit and vegetable market building may be more appropriate than focusing on a site-specific architectural solution. A bazaar in India usually originates with a market building and grows into several intersecting streets lined with shops and eventually develops into an entire market precinct. For instance, we have the Crawford market in Bombay, Manek chowk in Ahmedabad, the Lad bazaar in Hyderabad and the Russell market in Bangalore. These are the Inner city cores where formal retail and informal retail grow simultaneously and must both be understood so that we can generate an integrated development plan. I wrote earlier about The Informal Economy and Urban space, a post that focuses on the wholesale tomato market outside the Russell market, a temporal marketplace that operates for an intense two hours every morning.

Whilst the fire at Russell market will require that the inside of the building be given adequate attention so that livelihoods can be resurrected at the earliest, there have been issues that affect the vendors and the public that lie outside of the market. One of the key questions will be how can we resolve the parking problems which are currently affecting the business of the shopowners both inside and outside the market building as well as making it difficult for the traffic to manoeuvre its way through the increasing congestion on the roads? Will it help to survey the adequacy of the Parking facility built above the Shivaji Nagar bus stand and the roads leading up to it? Traffic congestion is a problem that the entire city of Bangalore is currently battling with. An article in The Hindu, Why do we find ourselves in such a jam today? discusses the vehicular growth in Bangalore over the last ten years, the draft Parking Policy and possible solutions for improving the movement of traffic on the roads.

The second key question will be how can the Municipal Corporation generate revenue so that it can maintain the market and its surroundings better, without the city having to lose a traditional bazaar and a heritage building? With heritage market buildings, it is attractive for the Municipal Corporation to take acquisition of the land and find a more lucrative use for it since the price of the land is higher than the value of the building that sits on it. The need to conserve architectural heritage is difficult to fathom in the strife for generating revenue for the city and improving its infrastructure. For the phenomenal numbers of people that live in every Indian city, it is amazing how cities work here. However, for citizens to appreciate the efforts of the government, perhaps the city needs to function even more efficiently or the government must be able to communicate to its people why it is unable to do better and how the public must contribute.

Related posts:

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Gandhi Bazaar: Street Vendor Eviction

The Street vendors at Gandhi Bazaar were evicted on Jan 23 and it’s now three weeks since then. There is more than one reason being cited for the Gandhi Bazaar main road being cleared of street vending. An article in the Deccan Chronicle on Jan 25, 2012 says, "The BBMP authorities said there was a demand from the traffic police and members of the public to clear the footpath and the road to ensure smooth movement of pedestrians and vehicles". So, it is the traffic congestion and the inconvenience to the public that seems to have triggered the eviction.

When I spoke to the residents of Basavanagudi, I learnt that the vendors are  now quite arrogant and rude so unlike the way they were in the past. The residents say that the vendors infringe on more urban space than they can manage within. The objection to street vending from the residents was related more to the behaviour of the vendors and the government's objection was related to the traffic congestion that street vending was contributing to.

Some months ago, I had read a paper – Lessons from the Unbuilt Tagore circle underpass by Dr.Vinod Vyasulu, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. The reason I think about this now is because the underpass construction that started in October 2009 has caused so much traffic congestion and one wonders if the need to evict the street vendors would have arisen if the underpass work had never begun. I reproduce here an excerpt from Dr.Vyasulu’s paper:

Why did work start before it was clear that land would need to be acquired for the service road? What alternatives were debated within the BBMP before deciding upon this? Why was no attempt made to share information with the residents of the area? Why were no public hearings held? Why now, in the middle of construction are alternatives not being debated?
    There are alternatives.
We could fill up the mess and go back to the old situation. Apart from the BBMP losing face—and money being wasted, this would be the best option as this underpass was never needed. Why cannot this be debated openly?

There could be several reasons for the traffic congestion, one, the street vending, second, the construction of the underpass, thirdly, the lack of a service road after the commencement of the underpass and perhaps also the parking of vehicles along the Gandhi Bazaar main road.

The Gandhi Bazaar main road on Feb 13, 2012 and the absence of flower sellers outside the Vidyarthi Bhavan 

If you look at the Gandhi Bazaar main road from the Tagore Circle end, you find a continuous row of two-wheelers randomly parked along the footpath and further down, a line of cars parked along the road. There are signs put up by the municipality that confirm that there is “Parking for cars” and “Parking for two-wheelers”. There is organised parking that occupies such a large part of this shopping environment which ought to be dedicated more to pedestrians and less to cars.

While the act of street vending is brought under strict scrutiny by the government, it may also be worthwhile to understand how the traffic works, why it transits through this street and whether the cars that park or transit here have direct linkages to the shopping activity which is the mainstay of this urban space. A thorough study of the users of the cars would tell us if the cars parked here belong to the shoppers who use the street bazaar, to the shop-owners or to the offices located in the vicinity and it could be worked out what percentage of the space can be allocated to whom.

In order to decongest the Gandhi Bazaar main road, we need to ask ourselves what are the causes of the street not functioning properly anymore – the increase in the vendor population, the increase in the resident and shopper population, the lack of enforcement of parking regulations or the unjustified construction of the underpass? Perhaps, we need to prioritise our objectives – is it to provide a better environment for the residents of Basavanagudi, is it so that the street functions efficiently as a transition zone, is it to improve the hygiene conditions in this region or is the objective linked to a decision about an underpass that cannot now be retracted from action.

In the future, to make a Street better, can short-term experiments be carried out to determine the extent of change required? Can these include conducting a meeting of Shopowners, Street vendors and Users of the area to know their views on the day-to-day problems and implementing some of their recommendations? Can we seek comments and suggestions from the citizens of Bangalore, through a market survey? Or, can we have an exhibition of an Urban Planning draft proposal, which would be open to the public inviting their views in a visitors’ book or in a follow-up workshop to be attended by organisations and old residents of Basavanagudi?

An initial Urban Planning Survey at Gandhi Bazaar may ask questions such as: How did Gandhi Bazaar originate? How many street vendors operating here have a legal status? What is the length or extent of the street that makes Gandhi Bazaar? What are the average walking distances for customers? How many people enter Gandhi Bazaar every day? Of these, how many are buyers and how many are in transit going somewhere else? What are the roads that surround the Gandhi Bazaar, what roads connect here? How does this street connect to the neighbourhood it lies within? How does it influence what happens in the localities adjacent to it? What have been the government interventions over the last 20 years at Gandhi Bazaar? What are the views and thoughts of the regular customers of the Gandhi Bazaar? How much of the Urban Street Vendor Policy 2009 has been implemented in the city? How are the Town Vending Committees to be constituted at the city level functioning? Who is responsible for this?

We need to know what works, what does not work and what are the costs involved in making a better street and a better city. There is so much to know before we start to come up with appropriate solutions that solve our infrastructural problems, our livelihood issues and give us urban habitats that match up to the “world class city” that we seem to be wanting in India all the time, without wanting to find out how people live their everyday lives and what the day-to-day needs are.

Related Posts:
The Informal Economy and Urban space
Territoriality in the Indian Bazaar
A Street bazaar and the City
Pedestrianising Gandhi Bazaar