Saturday, July 13, 2024

Govt’s ambitious Barik Complex project gets civil society red flag


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By Abha Anindita

SHILLONG, June 6: Chief Minister Conrad K Sangma’s grandiose plan to convert the 25-acre Barik land in downtown here into a multi-dimensional public utility junction, is in for a loud disapproval from a section of discerning civil society members.
What is raising heckles from citizens is that this triangular plot where some old British built structures have stood the test of time, is being proposed to be done away with in the sanctimonious name of decongestion of the town.
The ostensible aim of the plan is to enhance the city’s aesthetics and ease traffic flow. The plan includes constructing a landmark structure at Barik Point, featuring the National Flag as a symbol of unity. Additionally, the space will be used for public amenities like restaurants and parking facilities.
When this reporter sought the views of a few residents who know a thing or two about this move, received unwavering disapproval across the board. Some were polite, some others sounded angry while making a clean breast of their opposition to the controversial move.
Madeline Yvonne Tham from INTACH (custodian of heritage sites and structures) emphasized the importance of preserving the heritage structures standing for nearly a century. She suggested alternative congestion relief measures such as improving public transportation and regulating vehicle ownership.
She said, “INTACH had identified buildings of heritage significance in the PWD complex and written to the government to preserve them; however, they have not received any response so far.”
Additionally, she said, “There are several other ways and means wherein one can approach decongestion, like more public transportation, charging people for parking on roads, limiting the number of vehicles per house, and allowing them to buy more only when they have enough parking space, among others.”
She also proposed prioritizing local educators to reduce commute times and ease congestion in the city.
Former diplomat Rudi Warjri, a member of The Shillong Smart City project board, expressed frustration, citing previous recommendations made to address city issues.
He said, “After the High Court order, along with IIM Shillong, there were several recommendations after hearing presentations from the police, from other agencies of the government, the problems they face and the suggestions, we integrated and incorporated all that and we gave it to the Deputy Chief Minister. Now, all this has been done, I think now it is five years or more than five years.”
“What has government done about this? Why don’t they act on these recommendations which have already been done by experts? This is ridiculous,” Warjri commented.
The Barik complex, beyond its historical significance, also has an emotional connect with people. Several quarters on social media have come forward to criticize and sign online petitions to oppose this move by the government.
Warjri further said, “They come with their own ideas, the chief minister will make some announcement or somebody else, whereas all these reports have been worked out together with officers from the government. It’s not just academic institutions or civil society. Certainly, for me, anything to do with demolishing heritage buildings should be opposed, unless it’s a total obstruction.”
With the coming up of recreational spaces and iconic structures in Barik, will it not lead to more traffic jam, as it will become a hub for tourists and city goers alike?
Prasenjit Biswas, Professor of Philosophy at NEHU, Shillong, adding how preservation of heritage of Shillong requires continuance and not abrupt and hasty decision, said, “Decongestion does not require removal of signature buildings in plum locations of Shillong as it is seen and known since 1947. Instead, it needs careful addition of arterial roads, expansion without disturbing fragile hills, water bodies and numerous flora and fauna in this sub-Himalayan Khasi hills.”
The question that has been raised by many is, would Barik not look just like an urban jungle, which half of the city already has become by taking away, what is mostly the essence of the city.
Biswas is of the firm view that “urban infrastructure needed for today’s Shillong requires conservation and renovation in the city space without changing it beyond its familiar arrangement of urban squatters. Making decisions on urban sites is a matter of accommodating sentiments of citizens that calls for not imposing what the politicians and bureaucrats conceive, but they ought to follow what Shillongites try to say on their deeper attachment with the urban landscape.”
Similarly, what has followed is a question, that why is the decision being taken by singulars, and why are the city’s authors, poets, civil society organizations who have time and again come up with several ideas of their own owing to decongestion not being made a part of this.
Author Bijoya Sawian said, “These heritage buildings of the colonial era are part of the history of Shillong and they are precious. Firstly, if these remnants of our history are too demolished for a parking lot I have nothing to express but shock and dismay. If they are to be replaced by a park there will hordes of locals and tourists flocking the place. Where does decongesting the city come in?”
She advocates that the government should consult people who have a vision, thinkers, writers, artists, poets and the youth. She said, “It could be anyone from any strata of society. This is imperative. These people know the pain of losing if they are swamped by visual pollution and the claustrophobia of a soulless city constantly bombarded by noise, visual and aesthetical pollution.”
Sawian points that the roads of Barik are wide enough, do they actually need an expansion? And when they are indeed, would there just not be more cars and more vehicles stuck?
Calvin Lyngdoh, who has been championing the cause of protecting Assam Type structures through his Instagram page, as they are indeed the cultural and heritage significance of the society, said, “This is ridiculous on the part of the government who is being irresponsible and building urban structures, beyond heritage value. It is increasingly becoming an urban jungle with no heritage value at all.”
Lyngdoh, whose page ‘Shillong Homes’ has around 20,000 followers on Instagram, mostly youths, feels the move must be resisted by the young generation. “It is time the youth come forward and raise their voice”. He hastened to give a disclaimer that he was not against development per se. “Our opposition is because in the name of development we are losing the city’s essence,” he asserted.
It is recalled that noted urban planners Aiban Mawkhroh of Atelier A+ and Flying Elephant Studio, led by C Rajagopal of Bangalore, won a Rs 5-lakh prize for their vision of an iconic space resembling Meghalaya, featuring elements like a forested area akin to Mawphlang sacred grove.
The government’s move for construction of a shopping mall faced public outrage then, prompting the government to backtrack.
Time will tell whether or not the renewed bid to gobble up the heritage buildings will meet with same fate.


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