Fiona Fernandez: Subway to nowhere

Instead of addressing issues that plague DN Road, authorities seem busy with plans that threaten to wreck havoc on the character of this heritage mile

The danger that can emerge with construction near these over-100-year-old heritage buildings needs to be weighed by qualified experts twice over. Pic for representation
The danger that can emerge with construction near these over-100-year-old heritage buildings needs to be weighed by qualified experts twice over. Pic for representation

Each time we chance upon sepia-tinted frames of the wide Hornby Road (today’s DN Road) — a sense of pride emerges. This is usually coupled with a silent wish to be transported back in time, albeit for few fleeting moments — to relive an era when trams and Victorias plied on our roads, as Bombay stood on the threshold of becoming an entrepreneurial powerhouse, and a city for its citizens, in the same breath.

A few years ago, we were lucky to have a close look at the hand-drawn projects of FW Stevens’s Victoria Terminus (today’s CST). Plans were rolled out for every corner and contour of this grand railway terminus in his artistic, print-like handwriting. Every necessity for the citizen-commuter, especially adequate restrooms and waiting rooms, were spelt out in detail. Flash forward to the present, and the frame appears grimy; the commuter lost somewhere in the din.

This brings us to the recent proposal reported in mid-day (October 15) where the gods in the Railways and BMC tabled a report to create a subway that will run under DN Road to link CST to Flora Fountain. Their reason? To ease pedestrian rush on DN Road. Our heart skipped a beat. In a flash, images of the ghastly-designed webbed glass framework of the existing subway at the terminus came to mind. It was, and remains an eyesore.

Aesthetic concerns aside, the real issue here is its necessity, and threat to existing heritage in the area. Already heritage experts are shifting uncomfortably at the idea and the change in the fabric to this part of SoBo, should the project get the nod. The danger that can emerge with construction near these over-100-year-old heritage buildings needs to be weighed by qualified experts twice over. The real culprits, vendors and hawkers continue to thrive unchecked throughout the stretch, along picturesque arched sidewalks. In the 1800s, when most of the buildings that dot this stretch were being built, the idea of the city planners and architects was to offer relief to pedestrians from the scorching sun and the raging monsoon. Once again, we see how the citizen’s comfort was considered while executing a city project. Today, the pedestrian is being shunted under these same roads. Most who use subways, especially after dark will swear about the lack of safety. That it’s a fire hazard is another issue altogether.

We’ve seen how poor planning can alter beautiful, iconic roads in other cities. Bengaluru’s MG Road comes to mind. Public dialogue and debate is the need of the hour. Increasingly, we are witnessing public buildings and projects being built without any synergy with Mumbai’s rich, historic character or with skewed citizen benefits (who uses the monorail?). In a city that has been built by and is home to some of the finest architectural minds in the country, we can do better than be on the road to becoming another Noida or Gurgaon. That would be the day.

mid-day’s Features Editor Fiona Fernandez relishes the city’s sights, sounds, smells and stones...wherever the ink and the inclination takes her. She tweets @bombayana. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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