Make walking easier
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Make walking easier

Born of community, the new India celebrates individual glory, but it has not yet understood public responsibility. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Feb 16, 2012 01:30 IST
Samar Halarnkar
Samar Halarnkar
Hindustan Times
Samar Halarnkar,hindustan times,news

There is much to notice when I walk to work at the University of Berkeley in California.

I notice the fog that appears to permanently enshroud the sprawling urban forest atop the hill where I live, a microclimate that hides mountain lions (A police advisory reads: 'Stay calm and face the lion…try to appear larger by raising your hands') and occasionally sends a skittish deer across my path.

I notice the stands of Japanese cherry blossoms lining the streets, the profusion of lemon trees in backyards, lush hills carpeted with oak, maple and the odd grove of eucalyptus.

I notice no two houses look the same, unlike the monotonous sameness of American suburbia from sea to shining sea. I notice 'We are the 99%' signs on some windows, a reflection of the depressed conditions and resentment sweeping the US. I notice the beggars, some of them mentally disturbed; I have never seen so many before.

I notice, as I huff up the steep inclines overlooking San Francisco Bay, the great span of the 74-year-old Golden Gate Bridge, a monument to foresight and public planning.

I notice the rash of classes teaching yoga, the 'Om' signs on many stores, the poems and little metal oddities, such as hands and leaves, embedded in the pavements.

I notice, above all, the pavements.

The pavements!

They are smooth, continuous and thoughtfully laid out, as in most US cities, with sloping, ribbed edges where they meet the road, to help the wheelchairs of the physically challenged and the canes of the visually challenged; there are loud beeps at traffic signals so the aurally challenged know when to walk.

I notice I can walk long distances - sometimes up to 8 km a day, with a 12-kg baby in my arms - with no major discomfort except for aching shoulders. I notice I have lost 2 kg in 25 days, and I feel healthier of body and lighter of mind than I did back home in Bangalore.

A pavement - and public facilities in general - always reflects the state of a society.

Here in Berkeley, where I am a visiting professor for a semester, I ruminate afresh on how the US, a nation that celebrates self-reliance and individual glory pulls together so well for community needs; how a nation now so plagued by self-doubt and riven with a growing illiberalism keeps the basics of a caring society intact; how the pavements (or sidewalks, as they say in American English) embody that caring society.

In India, where we are often so proud - with good reason - of what we have achieved in 20 years since liberalisation of the economy, we often fail to acknowledge our failure to build just and equitable public facilities. Our broken, carelessly built and barely maintained pavements speak to us of a nation of castes and groups that struggle to come together and cooperate for the needs of the larger community of all Indians, a nation where community spirit still means my community.

At the local office of the Social Security Administration - where I go to reactivate the social security number (akin to India's forthcoming Unique Identity (UID) number), I was allotted as a student in 1993 - I watch the clerk call a dedicated helpline when she finds a pensioner speaks only Japanese. The office offers services in, at least, 16 tongues, including Vietnamese and Farsi: the first is the language of a former enemy; the second, the language of a current enemy. In other public offices, Spanish is commonplace. In a Chinese-dominated area in the neighbouring city of Oakland, the street signs are in English and Chinese. These extra efforts at multiculturalism come despite the discomfort many in the US feel, in these grim economic times, about the growth of these minorities and their origins. California, its government bankrupt, is becoming increasing Hispanic, mostly of Mexican origin. In the decade from 2001 to 2011, the state's Hispanic population grew nearly 28%; Hispanics now constitute 38% of the population, and most young people come from Spanish-speaking families. China is the US's biggest bugbear, but none of that insecurity extends to denying facilities to citizens of Chinese origin, dominant among the Asians (that does not include South Asia) who constitute nearly half the Berkeley student body.

I cannot but contrast this inclusive attitude with the exclusive attitude I see in my multicultural neighbourhood of Fraser Town, Bangalore. At the electricity and water offices, I frequently encounter older citizens, mostly Muslim and Tamil, who struggle with the lack of Urdu and Tamil. In Delhi and Mumbai, public services show no awareness of minority needs. Delhi, where the old street signs were in four scripts - English, Hindi, Punjabi and Urdu - now assiduously ignores anything except English and Hindi.

This why-should-they-get-special-attention approach reflects the insecure, emerging Indian attitude to minorities, governance and in general to those with little influence. This attitude, obviously, makes its way to the streets. Unlike the US, where the majority drive and the pavements reflect the special attention paid to the minority who walk, India's cities reflect the power and influence of the minority who drive, not of the multitudes who walk.

The new India reflects the heady intoxication of individualism without public responsibility. Whether Tendulkar, Ambani, Modi or Gandhi, the individual achiever is an Indian ideal. This driving ambition has proved to be the fuel for a large part of the economic engine that has hauled nearly 100 million Indians out of poverty since 1991. It has also pushed many back into poverty and worsened inequality. If inclusive growth has to achieve its true meaning, India must learn how to make walking as easy in Borivali as it is in Berkeley.

First Published: Feb 15, 2012 23:25 IST