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Pedestrians in peril

Published : Feb 13, 2009 00:00 IST

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Destroying footpaths and pavements is part of urban development in India. Here, a scene in Chennai.-K.V. Srinivasan

Destroying footpaths and pavements is part of urban development in India. Here, a scene in Chennai.-K.V. Srinivasan

THERE are probably as many definitions of underdevelopment as there are developing countries. So let me offer another definition that may be appropriate for the early 21st century: a developing country is one with few places where urban residents can walk safely. This need not be a reflection of crime rates but may simply be a matter of inadequate facilities for pedestrians.

The almost complete lack of safe and continuous pavements and footpaths that is so typical of the many urban sprawls across the developing world is almost as notable as the extensive provision of these in, say, cities and towns of western Europe. Indeed, those cities of the developing world where pedestrians are given some attention and civic space are generally in the more developed parts: Singapore, Malaysia, Argentina, for example.

Developing countries currently have rapid rates of rural-urban migration, and it is estimated that already more than half of the population of the developing world consists of urban residents. Yet the provision of basic infrastructure has lagged far behind the movement of people.

The shortage of basic amenities in urban areas especially in the slums is well known. The problems of inadequate supply of safe water and electricity, poor sanitation, environmental pollution and congestion have been widely studied. The shortage of space, with cramped and crowded living and working conditions, no playgrounds for children and few parks for residents, has been noted.

Increasingly, there is also recognition of the ecological footprint of urbanisation. Generally, towns and cities in developing countries have a lower per capita energy consumption than those in the developed world. Even so, developing-country urban sprawls cast adverse environmental shadows on the surrounding region through the generation of solid waste and air pollution, the contamination of water sources, the using up or degradation of what used to be prime agricultural land and the destruction of natural vegetation. These eventually affect environmental conditions in the urban spaces themselves and have an impact on the quality of urban life, especially for the less privileged residents who cannot protect themselves from the negative impacts.

These issues are now commonplace in discussions on the urban condition. But one very crucial aspect of city life in developing countries is missed out in most such discussions the importance of having safe, continuous and usable walking spaces. This is evident in India even though rates of urbanisation in India are lower than in most of the developing world. In general, urban development in India is engaged in the process of destroying footpaths and pavements. It seems to be that most municipalities rarely accommodate footpaths in urban planning exercises, or if they do, they subsequently turn a blind eye to breaches of plans that destroy walking spaces.

As a result, cities that even a decade ago used to be seen as pleasant havens with leafy walkways are now congested nightmares, with paved roads for vehicles taking precedence and reducing or even removing the spaces available to pedestrians. The problem is not confined to the rapidly expanding metros but spreads across almost all urban conglomerations. As a result, pedestrians walk at their peril, typically having to share the road with unregulated traffic involving all sorts of vehicles and without access to any separate protected space.

To take only one example, consider Hyderabad, a city that has grown rapidly in the last decade not only in population but even more in geographical spread. Two aspects of Hyderabads growth make it even more instructive as an example with wider significance.

First, urban development in Hyderabad has raised property prices so sharply that land has become a major source of both accumulation and speculation. This in turn has given rise to numerous scams around land-grabbing and insider deals, of which the one related to Satyam/Maytas is only the latest. Second, both the current State government and the previous one emphasised the beautification of the city and the creation of world class urban infrastructure.

So what are the world class facilities that Hyderabad now delivers its residents? Mostly, the new urban development consists of some major new urban road arteries, the widening of existing roads, the spanking new Shamshabad airport (which is almost desolate in its distance and imitative grandeur) and the usual paraphernalia of contemporary metropolitana: shopping malls and high-rise apartments.

Much of this has predictably excluded the majority of residents, and the lack of emphasis on basics such as adequate sanitation or clean and affordable housing for the poor is only too evident in the continuing chaos and growing congestion of much of Hyderabad and Secunderabad. The road expansion, in particular, has had another effect: the almost complete destruction of pavements and walking spaces in large parts of the twin cities.

Wherever roads have been widened, the assumption seems to have been that no one will ever need to walk along them but will simply use mechanised transport to traverse them even for short distances. There is no other way to understand why in many places no apparent attempt has been made to create any pavement, and pedestrians are forced to negotiate their passage in direct competition (and often confrontation) with speeding cars, buses and two- and three-wheelers. Since vehicular traffic in India is almost universally aggressive in its attitude to pedestrians, this does not make for easy or safe journeys on foot. And the problem is compounded by the various animals that are usually to be found on our streets.

On those streets where some minor concession to pedestrians remains in the form of a few limited pavements, these are little more than complicated and often malicious obstacle courses. The narrow pavements are usually uneven, poorly paved and apparently never cleaned. They tend to be punctuated with trees, electric poles, stumps of open live wires, heaps of rubbish and sludge, broken glass and other discarded items forcing those trying to use them to jump off them and on to the crowded roads.

All this makes it difficult enough for healthy adults to walk on the roads. Imagine the problems of old people, small children, pregnant women, people with some physical disability or those carrying heavy and bulky burdens. The simple act of perambulation becomes not just arduous but something fraught with risk, a near-impossible task.

Since urban planning in India also apparently ignores the obvious need for public conveniences for ordinary people, and Hyderabad appears to be no exception to this rule, public toilets are few and far between. They are certainly hard to find on most major roads or even in most markets and other crowded urban spaces. This creates huge problems for women who are forced to be in such public spaces for long periods, but the male of the species is typically not constrained by such a lack of facilities. Therefore, the pavements tend to have another, less dangerous but often more unpleasant, feature: the pervasive stench of urine.

Combine all this with other sources of unease for hapless pedestrians: noise pollution because of the constant honking of car horns and the rumble of engines; atmospheric pollution because of the emissions from the vast diversity of vehicles of every size and age; and the difficulty of crossing streets even when there are traffic lights because of so many transgressions by vehicles. Street life is nasty and brutish not just for the poorest of the poor, who are forced to live on the streets, but even for those who have to walk on them for a short while.

I have picked on Hyderabad as an example, but clearly the problem is not unique to this city. From Mumbai to Kolkata, from Pune to Chennai, from Bangalore to Amritsar, we are destroying urban spaces and making them dirty, difficult and dangerous for most people to use. What is extraordinary is that much of this is done in the name of making our cities world class! Perhaps, if we stopped thinking of the world and started thinking of the needs of most of our own urban residents, we might actually begin to make our cities liveable.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Feb 13, 2009.)

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