Any empty space in Gangtok has the same impact on us as raw meat has when dropped amidst a pack of ravenous carnivores. We pounce on it as if it was the only thing we had ever lived for. In the wild, bigger carnivores get to take the big portions, leaving the smaller pieces for weaker ones. Our stories have a similar plotline. Look at what we did. In the last 44 years since the merger, we changed (marred) the face of Gangtok and, of course, of Sikkim beyond repair. We have occupied every inch that there is. Some of us have encroached upon even the roads and others didn’t leave a millimetre more than they had to. Many of us fought over every inch of our land and became lifelong enemies with neighbouring landowners. Every open space, accidentally untouched by concrete, has been sold and used for construction. As the saying goes, Gangtokians made houses even on the steepest of cliffs forsaken by monkeys who feared lest they fall.
What has happened was inevitable. The government cannot possibly restrict the sale of private land. To think of a ‘City Master Plan’ now is a day late and a dollar short. However, the game hasn’t ended yet. Every existing issue has dual realities- (a) the past – what had to happen, happened and (b) the future – what should not happen, should not be allowed to happen.
Daragaon in Tadong is a case in point. This beautiful place has now been irredeemably trapped in self-made congestion. Except for the narrow footpaths crisscrossing houses, there is no open space left whatsoever. Funnily enough, some footpaths end abruptly in front of the main gates of private houses. In some places, people have to walk through narrow gullies behind the backs of buildings.
The sky is hidden from human sight. Building owners do have open terraces but most of them have already covered them with tin roofs. Rented apartments have little or no exposure to sunlight and fresh air. Senior citizens hurriedly run to crevices between buildings to catch a fleeting touch of sun rays. Otherwise a noisy place, in Daragaon however we find that the noise of children playing any physical games is hardly ever heard. Oh, the boredom and misfortune of youth who are robbed of any opportunity to explore their athletic spark, much less exploit their full potential. Diabetic, pre-diabetic people and many others who have been advised by their doctors to go for regular walks have nowhere to go. The army area is now off-limits to civilians. I have seen local people standing alongside the highway and sitting there, watching the passing of vehicles for hours. In a poetic sense, Daragaon has become worse than a jail – if not for human beings but for humanity. Every morning, we leave the house for the routine rat race, scrape through the tunnels between buildings and in the evening we stagger through the same tunnels and enter our dwelling places. Humans are creatures of habit. Most Daragaonians do not even feel the need for open space anymore. We are habituated to living that way. In fact, the picture that I painted about Daragaon is a miniature mirror image of all of Gangtok.
Daragaon, however, has the last chance to redeem itself from this ever-worsening congestion. SNT Colony, the biggest open space in all of Gangtok could be developed into a pedestrianized public park along the lines of Gandhi Marg in Gangtok with additional facilities like a mini sports stadium, amphitheatre, entertainment park, running trails for joggers, bike lanes for children, etc.
The State Housing Development Board, in partnership with a private builder, is apparently pushing for a housing colony. What a disaster that would be. The project, if it materializes, will hit the final nail on the coffin of Daragaon’s hopes of creating a healthy public space. Adding additional hundred-plus households to Daragaon which is already bursting at the seams with overflow population is simply ridiculous. Among other things, imagine the parking woes that will escalate. That will be the last straw which will eventually break the camel’s back.
All is not over yet. Some concerned youth of the area have requisitioned the government to review the situation and scrap the proposed project of a housing colony. The government could set an example by prioritizing the interests of suffering people and choosing long-term benefits for a greater number of people over short-term benefits for a few developers and potential buyers of flats.
Gangtok city planning must be thoroughly re-strategized. It is now or never. Here are a few humble suggestions. Any housing colony without parking space allocated for each apartment and extra space for visitors must never be approved. This must be the norm. In fact, any public buildings – particularly government or private offices, hospitals and shopping malls – must have enough parking spaces for the estimated number of clients. Special parking spaces must be reserved for differently-abled people. Where do we have the place you say? The answer is this – cities must spread out. We cannot have everything in Gandhi Marg. The new STNM’s location was smartly chosen. Now, the state government must envision developing a larger public infrastructure outside Gangtok.
Spending the next few years in developing wider “smart roads” is the way forward. Otherwise, in the name of development, we will merely be digging our own grave. Another bold decision would be the zoning of the entire city. Commercial, residential, industrial and administrative zones must be clearly and strictly demarcated. How healthy is it to sell cement on the first floor and live on the next floor? What about restaurants in the next block? Motor workshops and residences in the same building? Liquor shops and schools/colleges side by side? This issue will not be solved overnight. Moreover, in a place where people come out at rallies, shouting slogans, at the drop of a hat, it will need smart handling and public consultation. But the process has to begin with a long term strategy in place.
“Adding additional hundred-plus households to Daragaon which is already bursting at the seams with overflow population is simply ridiculous. Among other things, imagine the parking woes that will escalate. That will be the last straw which will eventually break the camel’s back.”
By Jiwan Rai, the author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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