The Metro’s Impact on People, Places and Landscape

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

If we want to bring radical change, ‘creative destruction’ is inevitable. However, this logic should not deter us from considering in advance the social impact of any major undertaking as that is what touches people’s lives 

In the past few weeks I have regularly been driving along Vandermeersch street, and for the first time last Sunday I drove up towards Rose Hill instead of turning left to go towards Ebene. I thus got a chance to see the elevated metro interchange platform under construction, which looks practically exactly like the one I saw in New Delhi during a sponsored (by the Indian Government) media visit about two years ago; it was also being built at that time. Was visible also part of the completed track winding overhead past Arab Town, going over the Royal Road at the roundabout which was much smaller than its former size.

It was on last Sunday too that I went along La Butte towards Marie Reine de la Paix, driving on the small detour that had to be quickly made when a few weeks ago some structure collapsed there causing damage to the road. The metro track is making its serpentine way towards its destination at the Victoria interchange in Port Louis.

When one looks at the video prepared by the Larsen and Toubro firm visualising the completed 26 km long metro project track from Curepipe to Port Louis with its interchanges and stations, one cannot fail to be impressed. These structures are clean, the trains sleek, spick and span, so too the new bus stations and buses which are plying. With the new signalling arrangements, the traffic is seen to be flowing smoothly especially in the urban areas, where vehicles are shown running on the roads as well and their flow is properly integrated with that of the metro trains.

As a citizen I certainly look forward to the completion of the first part of the project as announced, and its operationalisation by September. It will definitely change not only the transport landscape but also the physical landscape, cutting across towns and adjoining regions. Like with all new things, we will look at the trains gliding by with some wonder and perhaps awe – at least initially – until we gradually, and probably sooner than later, accept it as a ‘new normal’ in our island. Who knows, we may even come to boast about it when it is fully completed and functioning, priding ourselves on another ‘first’ in the Indian Ocean. Wow.

But this is the hardware part, like all constructions. Without being cynical, I cannot help thinking about the cleanliness aspect of the gleaming new trains and the interchanges and stations. When I visited the newly-built Jeetoo Hospital a few months after it had been delivered and became operational, I was appalled to see how dirty many of the walls around the wards had become, littered with foot marks. There were the imprints of a dirty habit of ours – our behavioural software as it were — as we stand against a wall, our tendency to rest our feet on it while we are waiting. And of course there are hundreds of visitors daily.

We simply do not care about public property. We would not behave like that in private spaces, like banks for example, where we will dutifully queue up in order, avoid speaking loudly and patiently await our turn as our money is being processed. When it comes to public property, for reasons that I can never fathom, our common reflex is ‘that’s not mine, it is government’s’, forgetting that it is our own taxpayers’ money that is involved. So in effect we share the ownership, and ought to be as concerned about preserving what belongs to all of us collectively. Sadly, we are not.

I have already written in earlier articles about the vandalism in and looting of toilets and bathrooms in our hospitals, and I have similar apprehensions about the interchanges and stations of the metro line. By the same token, I hope that the seat covers in the trains will not be subjected to the types of aggression which those in our buses undergo with sharp instruments by hooligans and defaulters.

Another event that got me thinking about this topic is the auto exhibition held at the Swami Vivekananda International Convention Centre last weekend. I did not visit it, but I was witness to the sheer number of cars that had filled the parking area and that were lined on both sides of the road going up towards the ring road. Obviously those who had come to the show were planning to make use of the bargains on offer, which along with the regular sales will over time add further to the growing number of vehicles on our roads.

So who, I asked myself, are those going to travel by the metro? Will the free shuttles announced by the minister of Public Infrastructure be enough of an incentive to tempt people to leave their cars and travel by metro instead? Only time will tell. There are other aspects to this problématique that I will leave to sociologists and others to explore.

That will be one of the dimensions of the metro’s impact on people’s lives. It had also affected a number of them in some critical areas such as Barkly, La Butte and Vandermeersch street at the early stages. We would remember the damage that was caused to the sewers at the latter location and the vehement protests by residents who had their houses flooded with sewage and had to bear the foul smell. They have sought compensation through legal means, which the firms had probably made provision for.

While this problem was going on, I met a consultant in Environmental Impact Assessment, who told me that there was sophisticated equipment available, in the form of a scanner, that could detect what lay under the surface to be dug, and could therefore be used to avoid causing damage to underlying infrastructure. I am not aware whether such equipment was used at Vandermeersch, but the reason I raise this point is that similar digging is soon to begin in Curepipe. The preliminary fencing off has already started along the Swami Sivananda Avenue opposite the Novelty cinema hall – and I hope that such problems with the sewerage infrastructure will not be encountered if the appropriate equipment is used.

It is true that to make an omelet you have to break the egg – or, to put it in contemporary jargon, if we want to bring radical change, ‘creative destruction’ is inevitable. However, this logic should not deter us from considering in advance the social impact of any major undertaking as that is what touches people’s lives. Since all development is meant to better them it is axiomatic that from its very inception the people factor should gain focus as a central preoccupation thereof.

And so, the metro is coming. Will it bring the improvement promised in the transport landscape? Expectations are high – but we will have to wait and see…

* Published in print edition on 9 August 2019

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