Sun city voyage: From Tonga to MRTS

Conceiving and developing MRTS in isolation to land use planning and economy of the city is going to add more traffic problems than easing out the existing woes.
GK Photo
GK Photo

Since times immemorial, Srinagar has been known as a city with its genesis because of presence of water. Water transport was an important means of mobility and transportation of goods. It was safe and economical mode of transport which most of the city's now cherish and contemplate to introduce because of its unlimited advantages. Alas! We have given it up. I still remember vegetables, food grains and logs being transported through River Jhelum and other water channels of the city. Although a strenuous job carried out by men to pull heavy loads and boats from especially down stream to upstream and vice versa. During these times Ghats used to act as vital activity and interaction areas in the city. Srinagar has thrived and evolved around these Ghats which signified the importance of water transport in its growth and development.

Also the earliest known means of surface transport in Srinagar was Tonga. Till late seventies of the nineteenth century tongas as two wheeled hackney carriages acted as a vital mode of transport in the city. Some elite class people also preferred exclusive tongas as personalized mode of transport.  Tonga's from various locations of the city used to play as main mode of surface transport. It was predominantly used intra city and para transit mode of transport. The delight of Tonga ride along with clip-clop sound of horse shoes makes one nostalgic about this mode of transport which has almost vanished from the roads of Srinagar. The reminiscence of indigenous modes of transport is still found in Dal Lake (boats) and small towns in the valley (tongas). 

However, during this time most of the people preferred walking in Srinagar until the introduction of tempos – a long three wheeled motorized bus and minibuses. With introduction of mechanized means of transport, Srinagar which was compact, walkable, connected, and in its own way  a smart city, lost the way, and expanded in spatial spread which further forced it to adopt the diversified modes of transport. Soon non-conventional modes of transport made inroads in a big way. The change became entrenched with liberal policies of the government to facilitate the transporters both private and public, which facilitated introduction of various types of non-antediluvian modes of transport. These were different than traditional Tongas, accommodated more passengers and temporarily proved satisfactory mode of transport. With the passage of time some modes became outdated and were replaced by newer modes of transport. These in the process added speed, mobility, expanded the city spread and economic influence. At every stage with the removal of Tonga, city dwellers always hoped that city transport difficulties would be relieved by supplementary services introduced by private sector successively. At present Srinagar has excessive concentration of multi-modal mix of modes of transport with predominance of personalized modes linked to all sorts of traffic problems. The situation has got much worse due to non application of standard procedures in developing transport sector.   

It has transformed Srinagar into a throbbing metropolitan city where transport has no more remained confined to work and residence only. Urbanites of the city are encountered with a new set of experiences more recently, imposed by sprawling urbanization. It has brought with it monumental urban complexities this justifies for prettifying the experiences of yesteryear Srinagar. The city transport and urban explosion being accompanied with gamut urban issues, painfully is as good as "urban mystique" the counter part of much talked about "rural mystique". 

Like other facets of the city development transportation sector has also undergone changes and transformation. Since my childhood modes of transport have both diversified and increased in the number over the time. As expected it has improved the comfort level but the diversification of modes of transport has also brought with it, more woes and is threatening environment and human life. The transition from the conventional modes of transport to mechanized modes of transport has basically been left rudderless sans comprehensive development management policy to adopt the change which has been stupendous in nature. Traffic in Srinagar at present has been swept away by the personalized modes of transport, adding unique set of transport problems. City planning has also been so immersed in the beaux  arts tradition as such  bound up in bricks and mortar that it has not till date shown concerns for this  grave problem  with the genuine urban planning and transport planning convergence. 

Unfortunately, thing continued to happen otherwise in public transport and city has been left out to mini-buses which are proving to be mosquito buses only. The mosquito buses consistently piled up on routes virtually made large buses from the city extinct. With the time, as space for big buses shrunk in the city these could not compete to accessibility of mosquito buses. The official enthusiasm for these buses has also now started to wane as these have excessively mushroomed on all routes and are hampering mobility and rejuvenation of ailing transport system of Srinagar. As main mode of public transport mini bus service is irregular, unfrequented, and missing late over services, has started to harbour feelings of dissatisfaction by the general public and city administration too.

What happens in Srinagar city today is likely going to happen in other small sized cities and towns tomorrow? The chaotic traffic is painfully familiar to any Srinagarites and commuters whose daily journey takes them down to city center where the unwary are exposed to the added snarls, gridlock, jams and exhaust fumes. Crossing through the city often can drive a motorist into hair tearing rage as he waits in snarled mobility of vehicles. All presents some degree of traffic nightmare. Thus chaotic traffic seems to be inescapable prime development over the years Srinagar city is experiencing. City administration is trying its level best, be it through development of grade separators, flyovers, creation of car parking lots, route diversion, construction of bridges, relocation of terminal centers, widening of roads etc. however, is still grappling with the chaotic transportation scenario of the city. Even to the extent authorities are probing ways and means to modernize the public transportation system and intend to opt for Mass Rapid Transit System for the city. It is a welcome development for the Srinagar as it will provide snarl free mobility to the people. Conceiving and developing MRTS in isolation to land use planning and economy of the city is going to add more traffic problems than easing out the existing woes. Srinagar has had a bitter experience of appositely opting for mechanized means of transportation without realizing the long term implication and correcting the basics of urbanization as a prerequisite. City administration and authorities did respond to the needs of mobility arising out of process of urban sprawl but underscored and undermined the importance of substantiating it with much warranted dispersal of activities and work centers.  It is the root cause for peak hour unidirectional movement patterns, excessive dependence on core city, over dependence on personalized modes of transport, missing public transport early in the evening from almost all routes and other traffic ills. The unprecedented growth of population and vehicles is expected to continue and would result in further distortions of modal mix. It seems quite likely that the scenario which will emerge in coming 20 years will further distort the modal split with focus on energy efficiency and pollution. As such policy intervention by giving greater priority for strengthening public transport system is a dire need to achieved better mix and better road space utilization. Solution what to be adopted have to be system oriented rather than spot improvement and mitigation traffic ill in isolation.

Nowadays public transport vehicles and personalized modes feature strongly on the most of the roads of all over city. No doubt these have speed up the mobility but added innumerable woes which have made management of Srinagar traffic a daunting task .The indigenous transport facilities are still in operation in many part of the small and medium towns and rural areas and is an exciting and novel experience. Should these modes be re-introduced in the city on selected routes for promotion of tourism? Tourists would use this indigenous mode of transport and would find it an economical way of sight seeing and getting to know culture, populace, nature and heritage of the area. Tonga would also provide travel sobriquets and viable means of  para-transit mode of transport and boost  short distance sight seeing.

Former Chief Town Planner, Jammu Development Authority

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