Section 144 imposed in Meghalaya
Representational image Credit: Macdiel Marbaniang

Shillong: Jammed roads, honking vehicles, angry people, anxious pedestrians and frowning faces — this is what characterises Shillong today. And ever since COVID restrictions were eased — opening up all offices and schools — the city now comes to a standstill every day with traffic moving at a glacial speed. 

With the city almost having exhausted its spatial resources, it stands at the brink of becoming an urban nightmare. 

“The distance to my office from home is about three kilometres. I take a one-kilometre detour on the way to drop my children to school. To cover roughly five kilometres, I drive for almost an hour and half in the morning daily,” Denang Momin, a resident of Forest Colony, told EastMojo

“I think I must be spending three hours or more every day on the road in my daily commute. Sometimes even more. If there was an alternative, I would have taken that because along with the frustration, my fuel costs are also rising,” he added. 

To attempt a deconstruction of why roads are routinely jammed in the city, the development patterns have to be considered. Distribution of development in Shillong has been dramatically different, rampant, and unplanned for a long time now. In fact, it is the only city in the whole of Meghalaya and has been bearing the load of development single-handedly. There are no other centres of development that receive as much focus and attention as Shillong does. 

As per a land-use study conducted by local researchers P K Ryngnga and Bring Ryntathiang, the city expanded in a speedy and uncontrolled manner between 1991 and 2010. While the idea was to direct urban expansion to New Shillong, there were no policies for the existing city and its ever-increasing and expanding problems. 

The researchers further stated that most outskirts of the city, which were considered rural prior to 1971, saw changes in land-use patterns, eventually becoming a part of the city. 

Not only did that alter the patterns of living — in essence establishing lines of socio-economic inequalities — but that also led to unmonitored settlement patterns, eventually squeezing spatial resources. 

In a report of the Meghalaya planning department, the department admitted that due to the “inadequacy of reliable data” there was “little insight available on the socio-economic characteristics of the state”.

In essence, critical details related to land-use patterns and settlements in the state are hardly available. 

Noted sociologist Aashish Khakha, in a paper on the New Shillong Township, said that with respect to urban planning, the state has not figured out a way to decongest the existing city even with Mawdiangdiang in focus. 

Khakha argued that the New Shillong Township was meant to absorb population rise, make up for the lack of space in the current city and then figure out ways for solving congestion problems. 

However, he wrote, the township has so far seen the allotment of land “so acquired for a class of people who work for the state, such as bureaucrats, government officials and the army”.

“The people are not opposed to urban development but the manner in which it is being executed…There is a deep divide between the state’s manner of executing urban development and the tribal people’s aspirations and their expectations from the state,” he concluded. 

The current challenge, therefore, has risen from a lack of timely planning, unenforced regulations and a lack of policies to deal with the dynamic nature of the problem. 

“Considering just the roads, as of now, the main issue is with respect to standards and regulations. Not only do they need a relook but they need to be enforced as well. There are inner city roads that have a width of two metres and yet are two-lane roads,” Maximilian Blah, an urban planner hailing from Shillong, told EastMojo

“Without setting laws into changing how wide a ‘future’ road should be, traffic jams will always stay a part of Shillong,” he said. 

To ease some congestion, in the recent past, the government had proposed the construction of the Shillong-Western Bypass and Shillong-Diengpasoh Road. However, there has been no timeline given as of now with regards to completion of the two projects. 

Even the odd-even rule — imposed under COVID guidelines — has not seen tangible impact, with most vehicles having a pass to ply. 

With the daily snarls in place and the rising levels of frustration among citizens, it is the last mile where concerted efforts have to be taken now in an unprecedented manner.

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