Fazilka is a small, 162 year old town on the India-Pakistan border. Its unkempt, garbage-strewn congested streets with small, bustling shops are nothing out of the ordinary. But this town of about 68,000 people – and about 45,000 vehicles on its narrow lanes – has removed one source of congestion: cars.
On November 21, 2008, the city made history, when it became the first in the region to implement the “Carfree City” concept. The main market area around the Ghanta Ghar (Clock Tower) was declared a “Car Free Zone” – the entry of cars was banned between 10am, when most shops open, and 7pm, when the shopkeepers head home – despite initial opposition, especially from shopkeepers who feared losing clientele. Only two wheelers (bikes and motorbikes) are allowed, but the town plans to remove them gradually.
Fazilka continues to build on its carfree success, by placing special emphasis on traffic calming devices and installing permanent barriers in a few locations, in addition to the introduction of other alternative ways of getting from A to B (such as “Ecocabs” or dial-a-rickshaw service), all helping to make the city centre more sustainable, pedestrian and cycle friendly.
Fazilka Finding its Feet
Fazilka’s unusual story began with a festival in 2006. In the last week of March that year, a citizens’ group of about 250 people, called the Graduates Welfare Association Fazilka (GWAF) organised the Fazilka Heritage Festival. A stretch of 300 metres on the Sadhu Ashram Road, not far from the current carfree zone, was converted into a pedestrian street. GWAF used this event as a case study to conduct an experiment to keep the same city central zone as a carfree zone. By remaining free of cars, the study revealed not just an improvement in the quality of social life, but also in the law and order, environment through less air pollution from car emissions, economy and road safety of the residents.
“The festival was a success,” said Bhupender Singh, a retired professor of mechanical engineering and an architect of this project. “Without cars, there was a lot of road space for everybody. There were stalls selling everything from food to handicrafts and people danced on the streets without the fear of being run over,” he added.
The festival was held again next year, though at a different location: the Salem Shah East West Corridor, which crosses the Ghanta Ghar. This time, the carfree zone extended about a kilometre. Again, the festival was well received by residents and set the tone for a dedicated carfree zone.
“It is only logical that first the most congested area of the town should be freed from traffic,” said Navdeep Asija, project manager of the Punjab Roads and Bridges Development Board. Asija had been studying the town’s traffic problems since 2006. “Fazilka is approximately 10.29 sq km big with each side spanning just a little over three kilometres. It can easily become a pedestrian city, with motorised vehicles used primarily for transportation of goods.”
Festivals can change cities. However, these festivals alone did not ensure a permanent carfree zone. GWAF was trying to convince the municipality to designate a carfree zone. This did not come up without initial resistance. Initially, shopkeepers were not too keen on the idea as they thought it would drive away customers, said Asija, adding that the municipality feared protests.
The stalemate continued until September 2008, when Anil Sethi took over as the president of the municipal committee. A trader himself, Sethi heard GWAF’s idea of a carfree zone, became interested, and set about implementing it. He considered such a scheme beneficial to Ghanta Ghar shopkeepers because it would decongest the area. Sethi’s influence among the traders helped him convince them, through several meetings with traders and their associations in order to create consensus.
The Ghanta Ghar market has three roads jutting out of it in three different directions. The lane encircling the Ghanta Ghar is about 200 metres long and is now free of traffic, as the three roads were barricaded. A further 800 metres of the road connecting the Hotel Bazar in the north to Wool Bazar in the south has been blocked. Another 400 metres of road in the east has been barricaded, and a stretch of road in the west has been blocked by a temple.
Once apprehensive, the shopkeepers in the Ghanta Ghar market are now happy with the ban. There is no official monitoring of pollution in Fazilka, but shopkeepers claim the air is cleaner. “I used to keep a jug of water for my staff and customers. Before the car ban, I had to change the water every hour as it would turn dirty,” said Vicky Chabbra, owner of a local utensils shop. “Now, it remains in the jug for an entire day and still looks clear.” Chabbra said sales in his shop have increased 25 per cent since the ban.
Roshan Lal, who sells chaat (North Indian street food) a few metres away from the utensils shop. “People have more time now. They come and enjoy their food without being hassled about whether their cars are blocking the road,” Lal said. Vikram Ahuja, another local shopkeeper, wants the concept replicated in other parts of the town. “Fazilka is small; one can easily walk from one corner to the other,” he said.
The carfree zone has spurred many an ambitious dream. There are talks of converting the Ghanta Ghar market into a pedestrian mall, with brightly coloured shops selling everything from cotton handkerchiefs to LCD televisions.
GWAF went further than simply introducing a cafree zone. Recognising peoples need to be on the move and get somewhere fast, a popular dial-a-rickshaw service was initiated. The rickshaws, called “Ecocabs”, were introduced as a new form of public transportation using intelligent transport tools, arriving at residents doorsteps following a phone call. The city has been divided into five zones and each has a different phone number.
“We didn’t want the rickshaws to be considered a poor man’s transport, therefore the name Ecocabs,” explains Navneet Asija, a Delhi graduate. Initially, the scheme got a lukewarm response, but picked up when residents understood the utility. It’s not just residents, even the rickshaw-pullers have benefited from fixed rates, which means their earnings have gone up.
Profits Following a Car Ban
Mayor Sethi plans to free most of the city of cars eventually. Sethi sees the carfree zone as a way to promote non-motorised transport and to build connections between the wealthy parts of town and the poorer parts. “The aim to create a car free zone and also to promote non-motorised modes of transport within the city is to build bridges between the prosperous sections of society in the city and the less well-off,” said Sethi. He opposes the construction of new overpasses within the city, which is a courageous position in Indian politics today.
Fazilka has seen a change not just in the improved quality of social life and road safety for its people, but also in improved law and order, local economy and environment from reduced air pollution.
The successful projects making the city centre carfree have been beneficial in many ways, not simply by decongesting the market. With the carfree zone and the Ecocab initiative, Fazilka is perhaps the only Indian town with such simple yet effective schemes. And it is clear that with public transportation alternatives such as these, along with the introduction of carfree spaces, communities benefit from feeling safer and healthier, when free from cars. Fazilka can proudly show a new way to the rest of the country.
This is an updated and edited version of Fazilka: Come without your Car by Arnab Pratim Dutta available at www.downtoearth.org