The Durga Puja festival in Kolkata is world famous. This year, the city witnessed around 36,000 different pandals being put up, for the duration of five days, all in public places – street corners, parks and sidewalks.
These temporary structures and their contents, chiefly icons and friezes, cost a whopping Rs 600 crore in a rough estimate, making it one of the biggest religious events celebrated in public. The five-day extravaganza witnessed a huge degree of public-private partnership in making it a success and ensuring it passed off peacefully. There is much that a city like Chennai can learn from this experience.
One of the big advantages that Durga Puja has over anything even remotely like it in Chennai is that it is a public event, celebrated all across Kolkata. It, therefore, becomes a time when shops, establishments and schools close, thereby bringing down regular traffic by a significant percentage. However, there are several regulations that still need to be in place to ensure that the people are not put to much inconvenience on the roads. That is where the Government comes in. It ensures that public transport operates in full right through the nights on the important days of the festival. It also cordons off entire streets, making them accessible only by foot. There are certain hotspots – some well known locations where some star pandals come up year after year that thousands of people go to see. These areas have queue systems in place, by means of enclosed walkways and an ample police presence to make sure people use only these routes and not the main roads.
The private aspect comes in the organisations of these pandals and also the provision of amenities – first aid, access for the disabled and the feeding of the public. The publication of a map, giving the locations of prominent pandals was a great idea and helped people plan their visit itineraries.
These lessons were not learnt in a day. Just last year a particularly sensational pandal made a huge section of the city out of bounds owing to the numbers that visited it. There have been fire accidents and stampedes. But with a vigilant administration taking care of such pain points, even the driving rain this year could not cause much dislocation. The benefits are evident to all – there has been a marked rise in tourist attendance. The restaurants and hotels have seen good patronage. The heritage spots in the city have seen a marked increase in visitors.
It is true that Chennai does not have a citywide festival, barring perhaps, on a limited scale, Madras Week. But there is much that the Government can do to make an impact with events such as the Arupathu Moovar festival at Mylapore, the December Music Festival or the Mylapore Festival. It could begin with special public transport arrangements. This was a feature for years during the December festival of the 1970s when buses would ply from point to point till late at night. This can be easily revived. Another aspect is to make certain areas accessible only on foot. After all, when we can cordon off entire areas for VIP movement, why can the same not be done in the name of culture? The four Mada Streets during Navaratri or Arupathu Moovar would make for a great attraction. There will be an increase in business for the commercial establishments all around. For celebrations such as Madras Week or the December festival we could have printed maps and guides to help people get around.
With Tamil Nadu topping the nation in terms of tourist inflow and Chennai taking the lead within the State, even such small steps could make a big impact. Is anyone in the administration thinking about this?