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Sunday Editorial:Walking down the road in Patna, an urban nightmare!

By Ratnakar Tripathy

Patna: enforced intimacy!

Patna: enforced intimacy!

Even as I let my fingers hover over the keyboard, I am aware that someone familiar with Patna may ask – why were you walking in Patna in the first place? My answer is as a biped I like to use my feet by way of instinct! Wherever! I don’t always need a leafy pathway or a scenic hill to let my instinct have a go.

But I am writing today about a very purposeful walk – recently I decided to walk the congested stretch from Sultanganj bordering on the old city to Gandhi Maidan, an ample space which leaves enough sky above the ground.  This is a distance of roughly 4 kms along the main city artery called Ashok Rajpath, named after the Mauryan emperor who preached peace and non-violence after cloying himself with loads of conquests and bloodbaths.

The idea was to pretend to be a geographer assessing the average walking person’s experience on the road during the peak hours in the evening. This is the time when people return from work and all the house-bound men and women take to the street the way people in other cities may crowd a park. So this is not the rush hour in the metropolitan sense. You have people rushing back and forth on the road between work and home. But you also have the strollers who move along gently and aimlessly hoping to catch a current of breeze or two, stare at an object of interest that could be your face or your shirt or shoes or watch. And then gangs of youth a few rows deep looking within, just enjoying the togetherness.

All these years I have had enough of grand phrases such as ‘problems of urbanism in India’.  The long laundry list invariably makes me want to not think further. So this once I decided I will have one monomaniacal object on my mind – I wished to do a dynamic survey of the road as I moved along to measure how much of the road space at various points has been grabbed by people for personal or business use.

If I may share the results for most of the imperial highway, the fact is really and effectively speaking it’s a hugely reduced space – it is in effect just a lane, as narrow as my home address lane that leads meandering towards the Ganga. Why and how? The shops on both sides lean on the road, their structures extending as far as possible with hungry little tongues forever flickering and aiming at one more inch of the road. Vegetable sellers with carts parked at strategic points at strategic hours since business happens at strategic points at strategic hours. There are points where a new construction requires unloading of sand and grit right on the road after which sack-full of the stuff get carried deeper into the lanes where trucks cannot enter. People must build and seek better lives, right?

If and when your annoyance reaches unmanageable levels, you can always find relief at a strategic chat stall or an ice-cream cart ready to offer you solace – these guys have GPS data analysis in their blood. Although a shrill and startling honk from behind may cause you to drop the pani-puri down the shirt rather than the gaping mouth!

The last word as I tell my friends are the animals – the dairies in Patna, called khatals often let their cows explore the roads freely in search of preferred nutrition. They are the real foodies of Patna in search of the best deals, unguided by the omniscient Vir Singhvis. They are ultimate lessons in the art of living too, their big eyes staring imperturbably at your stupid issues like urbanism and civilization, dropping the dung as a magnificent finish to our urban vision. Urban dogs, rats, bats and cats are a nervous lot, insecure about future and breeding at immoderate rates.

I know it’s stupid to offer all the obvious stuff as wisdom. But wait, I took matters beyond my pique and ‘subjective’ perception. I quantified as I walked along – I may now claim as much as 50% of the Royal Road is unavailable space, if you are walking or driving. The pedestrian has a strange and perverse privilege though. When stuck badly as in a Rugbee scrum, a walker may stand still without spending any fuel unlike the powered vehicles. Also, when overcome by a feeling of indefinite blockage, a pedestrian may decide to descend to the gutter on the side and race ahead of the traffic, what the hell! I have never seen anyone try it so far but it’s a possibility!

Finally, it’s Bari Road that branches off from Rajpath and meets Gandhi Maidan that is the real encroachment nightmare. 50-90% of the road is taken over by well, all types, species, genders, phyla and configuration.

Don’t go by my word, walk along the Abdul Bari road and think of a solution.

Narrow strip of shops and pedlars along the Ganga? Smaller carts? Fixed junctions for commercial activity? Underground, futuristic hubs? Paving of lanes to accelerate movement? Covering gutters to gain some extra space? This is one problem asking for myriad solutions as in a bouquet.

The most interesting thing about a hell is you want to get out of it, unlike heaven that’s meant to be stuck to. Patna has two heavenly things about it – the river and like any other city in the world, a view of the sky from the terrace. But yes, unlike many other cities of the world, Patna people use the terrace to socialize, to spy, to ogle, to quarrel, to walk or simply rediscover at the end of the day that there is something delectable about being lonesome – a deal between you and pure space!

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