PUNE—A Dweller’s View*
Pune and Hinterland—2
by Jayant Deshpande
ome ironies are cruel: the ‘prosperity’ of Indian cities is often a symbol of what they’ve taken away from their rural cousins; how they’ve enriched themselves at the expense of the rural dweller. The gulf between them is wide; wider, perhaps, than that between East and West.
In his essay, the “Nomadic Alternative”, Bruce Chatwin argues that man is by nature a nomad. He has to be in order to survive and remain both physically and mentally healthy. Chatwin feels that there is a dialectic between civilization, which is really the formation of settlements that grow into towns and cities, or urbanization, and nomadic life: be mobile, fragment and disperse.
In India, the rural poor, the landless, became nomads by necessity, and had to migrate to the city in the hope of a better life. We ‘urbanites’ have an uneasy, distrustful relationship with that migrant because we consider ourselves a cut above him. That tension Chatwin mentions is constantly at work: to settle or to wander. Nomadic Telugu construction workers wander from site to site earning their daily wages. As unskilled labor, they are wide open to exploitation by builders. Shantytowns are an obvious symptom of groups and communities on the move, in search of a livelihood—they defy town planning. They grow like barnacles. Pune owes its galloping spread to the growth of shantytowns which sport an urban, civic face. But behind this face, the city sputters, shudders, festers, strains, and occasionally explodes.
A river can be the most attractive thing about a city. But at present the twin-river Mula-Mutha system which splits the city is little more than a murky, greenish brown stream carrying the city’s effluent, with shanties on its banks adding their generous share. It hardly adds to the city’s pleasure. However, a plan is now in effect to landscape and build a causeway-walkway on either side of the Mutha river as it flows through the heart of the city. This will ease traffic elsewhere, and allow leisure space for pedestrians. Fortunately, the city is blessed with an abundant and reliable water supply, thanks to the Panshet and Khadakwasla dams, which release excess water into the Mutha during the monsoons.
Pune does have certain zoning guidelines. But instead of a master plan for the whole city, we have more or less independent planned townships—under the rubric of prime properties, commercial and residential schemes, housing societies, and colonies attached to large institutions and private businesses. Kothrud is, or was, reportedly the fastest growing suburb in the world—it used to be a village on the outskirts, as was Bhamburda before it became Shivaji Nagar; obviously a huge burden for a relatively small city like Pune. To add to this bustle are many other burgeoning colonies and suburbs, some far from the main city which may be characterized by the triptych formed by the Deccan Gymkhana, the Gaothan (the original, or old city) and the Cantonment. You’d think the city was totally out of control, like a raging forest fire. In a strong sense, it is. The dense, patchwork of development along the Pune-Satara Road right up to the Katraj Ghat is an urban cancer that has to be seen to be believed. It is urban sprawl gone mad; it arrests, but oppresses the casual observer. Respectable-looking, whitewashed, pastel-colored apartment blocks stretching mile after mile, acre upon acre, mimic the sprawl of shanties and slums. Not a sight for sore eyes. And Pune is hardly unique in this regard among the second-tier metros that populate India’s interior.
Flyovers have come up in the city to manage thru-traffic on heavily travelled arteries like Karve and University (Ganeshkind) Roads. And several by-passes carry traffic on the outskirts directly from Dehu Road on the Mumbai-Pune highway to Katraj in the south where the Pune-Kolhapur expressway starts—this has relieved traffic through the city considerably. Yet the main problem remains: too many vehicles, especially two- and three-wheelers. Pune is begging to have a mass rapid-transit system that will take many of these vehicles off its roads during peak traffic hours and make the commuter's life bearable.
* Revised & updated—first appeared in City Beat (a Pune weekly) during 1999-2000
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