Sunday, August 30, 2015

Carnival we ought to grow out of

By Kuldip Dhiman

‘Your city is choking’ sadly does not seem a convincing enough argument for citizens to change car buying and use habits. The lead has to come from the planners; that, unfortunately, is not happening. At least a public debate has to start, simple doables put to test. You can’t let cars take over all the space there is. What kind of development is that?

HAVING lived in Bangalore and Chandigarh for considerable periods of time, I have seen the “garden cities” turn into “car cities”. Both are ready to choke.
Chandigarh had 7.4 lakh vehicles in 2010; 4.3 lakh have been added since. It sees 4,000 new vehicles every month.
Henrik Valeur, a Danish urbanist and researcher who   worked with an Indian Institute of Science team to create infrastructure for non-motor-ised transportation in Bangalore, also spent six months in Chandigarh in 2010. He studied how meeting places could be created in the periphery. Alongside, he came up with a project to make one sector vehicle-free and see its impact. Assisting him were Chandigarh College of Architecture students.
Sector 19 was chosen since it was one of the first to be developed, with a layout typical of the rest. Like other sectors, 19 has four entrance points, so Henrik’s team proposed parking lots at each of these — two above the ground and two below in such a way that the maximum walking distance to any particular house would not be more than 300 metres.
For the transportation of the disabled, deliveries, garbage, etc, the team proposed cycle and solar-powered rickshaws.
The blueprint had cycle lanes in the market street, connected to the four entrance points. 
The crossings would have traffic lights, which would also make it possible to control traffic at the roundabouts. At the crossings, there could be stops for a shuttle bus service.
Henrik’s idea was that by removing all cars, a lot of space would be freed. “Almost 25 per cent of the total surface area of the sector is used by cars, either for driving or parking. All of this asphalt, which contributes significantly to the overheating of the city, could be removed, and instead, eco-friendly pathways for pedestrians, cycles and rickshaws could be built. These would be narrower, though still providing sufficient space for emergency vehicles,” says Henrik. 
The space thus created could be used for communal activities such as playgrounds, and kitchen gardens. Or to accommodate people who work in the sector but live outside. 
“When the cars are not parked right in front of the houses but in a parking lot, much more shopping would take place locally. This would help to reinvigorate the decaying market street.”
The solutions are interesting, but would it be possible to implement these even in a restricted area within a sector? Especially in a region where people are so conscious of asserting their social status?
The Master Plan Committee did not seem very enthusiastic of the idea, says Henrik. “In fact, it was not until a year later, when the proposal was discussed during hearing of another case in the High Court, that the UT Administration was told to make one of the sectors car-free. But in the end, nothing happened.”
Henrik makes an interesting observation: “Ironically, while people in developing countries are aspiring to the kind of modern mobility that people in the developed countries have been enjoying for decades, the people in developed countries are now beginning to adopt modes of mobility that people in developing countries consider outdated and backward. Thus, a recent mobility invention in developed countries is the concept of shared mobility space, which, of course, has a long history in developing countries.”
He also states how any idea that aims to reduce the sales of cars faces immediate assault. “In 2013, six out of the world’s 10 largest companies in terms of revenue were in the petroleum industry, two were automakers and one a power company. They make sure no policy harms their interests.”
So, can nothing be done? To begin with, the mindsets can be changed. The use of plastic bags has come down, hasn’t it, lesser people smoke now.  
A better and faster bus service, cheaper non-pedal rickshaws, lesser use of cars, all are doables. A Metro will take  time, we have to act faster.
Rediscovering walking and cycling is basic for Henrik. He’s all for cycle hiring centres in every sector. Hire a cycle to go to office or the market, drop it at the nearest kiosk there, and hire one again on your way back. Replicate it all over Chandigarh. Any takers?

Just switch it off and go to sleep

It’s largely a problem of the young, but age is no bar to more and more people giving up sleep to spend time with electronic gadgets at night. It’s unhealthy, unproductive, silly

The trend is widespread, alarming and plain nonsensical, to put it mildly — fidgeting with electronic gadgets late into the night at the cost of sleep. What follows is a gradual progression to sleeplessness and in due course, depression. Watching a movie at 3 am and chatting with friends simultaneously, playing a videogame at 2, surfing television channels late into the night — what are people, young and old, doing with electronic gadgets at such ungodly hours?
There was a time, not very long ago, when having dinner by 8 or 9 and going to bed soon after was the normal habit. Now, dinner close to midnight or later, and then getting active online has turned the natural sleep pattern upside down.
“People have become preoccupied and obsessed with round-the-clock TV, Internet and phones. This excessive use has had a devastating effect on their sleep pattern,” says Prof Savita Malhotra,Professor of Psychiatry, PGI, Chandigarh. 
“Six to eight hours of sleep is an absolute must for the human body. The very young require a little more than eight hours, the older ones may sleep a little less. It is during deep sleep that the internal system of the body does reparation and recoupment work. During sleep, the mind also consolidates memory. It ingrains what is necessary into the memory system of the brain. Those who are used to being online very late at night tend to suffer from forgetfulness.”
Because people sleep late, they wake up late, and then feel drowsy, lethargic and listless. “Children often miss school, and even if they go, they are not attentive. Among adults, lack of concentration is the cause of all sorts of accidents, absenteeism, low productivity, familial discord. It also has a devastating effect on their health. They become irritable, forgetful, angry, and suffer from anxiety and stress. When you sleep less, your body releases stress hormones. As a result, instead of letting your body repair and recover, you are actually subjecting yourself to additional stress,” warns Prof Malhotra.
What is this need to stay connected 24 hours a day? Experts say it gives a false sense of importance. Most calls and messages are not of much value — just unimportant conversation, and idle gossip.
Prof Malhotra says, “It reminds me of the catchline of a telecom company, Karlo duniya mutthi mein. The feeling that you have access to anyone, anytime, anywhere is intoxicating, gratifying, and gives a sense of empowerment. Because of this, people have become so addicted to gadgets that they are neglecting normal activities that are necessary for good mental and physical health. Relationships are suffering.”
The head of PGI’s Department of Neurology Prof Vivek Lal feels late nights “are wreaking havoc on this generation, which is totally unmindful of its consequences”.
“Sitting in the OPD, it pains me to see more and more young children coming with all sorts of problems unheard of before — abnormal aggression, severe headache, depression, abnormal weight both positive and negative, anxiety, and epilepsy. An overwhelming majority of these kids are slaves of technology, sitting up late in the night chatting or surfing.”
When people are advised to sleep early, most argue that they may be sleeping late, but they also wake up late, so the number of hours slept is practically the same. Is this argument sound?
Not at all, stresses Prof Malhotra. “The body has a natural biological clock, which is in sync with sunrise and sunset. This controls the internal hormonal system that is responsible for reparation and recuperation, and growth in the case of children. If this clock is disrupted, severe consequences follow. There is no substitute for a good night’s sleep.”
One of the main causes of sleeplessness is ‘cognitive stimulation’ before going to bed. When the brain is actively involved in something, its electrical activity increases and neurons begin to fire rapidly. This is fine during the day, but if neurons get very active before we go to bed, sleep is definitely going to elude us. When we play a videogame, for instance, before going to bed, or chat, or expect an email, the body becomes tense, and as a result, cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland, is released creating a condition that is detrimental to sleep.
Experts advise having a transition period, about half an hour of technology-free time before retiring for the day.
Prof Vivek Lal stresses that parents must switch off their gadgets and television sets by 10 pm. “In 50 per cent of cases, parents are directly or indirectly responsible for these technological indiscretions being carried out by their children. Children are immature, they have to be guided. Also, teachers have to be encouraged to drill into the head of students the importance of proper sleep hygiene.”
To sleep well, also set a regular time to go to bed. “You cannot sleep one day at 10, another at 2,” says Prof Malhotra. She sees a greater number of patients consulting her regarding insomnia. Many are getting tempted to taking pills. Because of this, the body is getting totally driven by chemicals.
“We know that this is happening in the IT sector and call centres. We advise sleep hygiene, that is, early to bed and early to rise. We do not recommend hypnotic sedatives and other drugs, because they are all habit forming. We also advise them to practise yoga and meditation.”
It’s a fairly simple choice in the end:  control the remote in your hand, or be controlled by it.