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So very pedestrian

Jaywalking, defined as the act of a pedestrian illegally or recklessly crossing roads, is something that Delhiites engage in without having a choice on a regular basis, writes Indrajit Hazra.

india Updated: Feb 20, 2010 22:34 IST
Indrajit Hazra

I don’t like leaving Delhi. But when I do leave the loveliest city in India for even a couple of days, No. 2 on my list of ‘Things I Enjoy Doing Outside Delhi’ happens to be walking about the city I’m visiting. (No. 1 on my list of ‘Things I Enjoy Doing Outside Delhi’ is experiencing a non-routine day.) For in planned, powerful, rippling, shiny Delhi, there are no footpaths to speak of or walk on.

I may have to manoeuvre myself through tributaries of urine and rows of shacks and stalls — and, on so many occasions, walk through people’s ramshackle living rooms — in Calcutta. But even with its villagescape, Calcutta still makes it as a city because a person is able to walk from (almost) any point to any other if he wants to do so.

In Mumbai, walking is not confined to strolling in parks or along the sea front to stay fit. People walk there also to simply move — aimlessly or with a purpose — thus making even that grizzly leaking beast of a city such an attractive conglomeration of spots for bipeds.

Delhi is to pedestrians what garlic is to vampires. Even if the urbane middle-class Delhiite deigns to get down from his E-class or rigged-meter auto-rickshaw, there is no place to walk across vast stretches of the capital city of India. Without the safety and the vantage point of footpaths, we, middle-class residents of India’s only truly cosmopolitan city, are denied the choice available to all modern citizens: walking through one’s own city.

With no mainstream walking culture possible, some of us end up singing dohas to cracklingly crowded and grubby lanes and bylanes in Old Delhi and Chandni Chowk. In other words, Delhi revels in its underbelly without having a belly. Which is why Delhiites opt for Footpath Walking Lite: walking around (mostly in circles) the shopping areas of Connaught Place, Khan Market, South Extension and all those pretend boulevards inside malls that hope to satisfy a bit of our primal metropolitan urge to walk in public spaces amid fellow, anonymous citizens.

The urban phenomenon of footpaths (villages don’t need them) first appeared in Paris with the mushrooming of shopping arcades between the 1780s and 1860s. People started walking away from the dangerous streets with its speeding traffic and mud and mounds into the safety and ‘public privacy’ of the boulevards and sidewalks lined against or near these shops. Thus, an urban activity was born: strolling.

This, in turn, brought about streetlights and public transportation (both of these abundantly in short supply in Delhi 2010). It also gave birth to the urban sophisticate who literally used the city for his pleasures. Charles Baudelaire wrote in the 1890s about the flaneur, the leisurely stroller of cities: “The crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird or the sea of the fish. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd.” Not everyone, though, was pleased about footpaths and the new breed of citizens they spawned. Sounding like a future South Dilliwalla, a character in a 1866 French play whined: “Nowadays, for the least excursions, there are miles to go! An eternal sidewalk going on and on forever! This isn’t Athens any more, it’s Babylon!”

But before we get all poetic about the joys that footpaths can bring us, there’s the more prosaic matter of the proposed amendment to the Delhi Police Act, 1978. Jaywalking, defined as the act of a pedestrian illegally or recklessly crossing roads, is something that Delhiites engage in without having a choice on a regular basis. The penalty for jaywalkers is, on paper, Rs 20. The new law, if and when it’s passed, plans to up the fine to Rs 1,000. A bit rich, don’t you think, considering that it’s like punishing a ravenous vegetarian for eating meat when there’s only chicken on the menu?

But then, the proposed law brings hope. If walking along Delhi’s roads really becomes illegal, the authorities will be forced to provide us with proper footpaths. Who knows? The city may get universal streetlights and public transportation too. So thank god for foreigners from Commonwealth countries descending on Delhi in October. They’ll want to walk about town and not only along the grimy bits. And that’s how we’ll wrangle our own footpaths. Hurrah! n ihazra@hindustantimes.com