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Yanking the ground from under our feet

Judge India by the quality of its pavements. It will explain how we treat most of our — and most vulnerable — citizens. writes Samar Halarnkar.

india Updated: Apr 28, 2010 21:47 IST
Samar Halarnkar

The great 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking."

It's a good thing he didn't live in 21st century Delhi or Mumbai. His thoughts while walking in an Indian city would be on jumping over that ditch, tripping over broken tiles or that speeding car threatening to careen onto the disappearing pavement.

Instead of solo pontificating on the topic that fascinates and incenses me — my family believes, rightly, that I am obsessed with pavements — I posted a simple query on Twitter: does anyone have thoughts on walking in Delhi and Mumbai?

I've never got so many instant responses to anything I've written.

A sampling:
* Delhi Right of Passage: SUVs run over 2wheelers, 2wheelers run over cyclists, who spill onto pavements 2 run over pedestrians.
* Walking in old delhi is akin to breaking a bhool bhulaiya. A sea of humanity, the rickshaws & the odd cow trying to kill u.
* In most neighbourhoods of Delhi, there are no paths or they're taken over for "gardens" and ...
* Don't know much about Delhi, but South Mumbai definitely has some of India's best footpaths. Wide, shaded, clean and well paved.
* Wht pavements?
* Walking for leisure is prac unheard of in mumbai but it is a city of walkers anyway.

That last comment is most revealing: people walk not in Indian cities not because it is pleasurable but because they must.

Clearly, walking is a topic that excites many people — except those who plan and build our pavements.
On the face of it, there could not be a better era coming for walkers in Delhi and Mumbai. Both cities are spending millions on refurbishing pavements.

Before October, when the Commonwealth Games begin, Delhi will spend more than Rs 400 crore on 'footpath improvement' and 'streetscaping', a peculiar term that focuses on the Indian penchant for outward appearances.

I have watched with growing infuriation as (a) perfectly good pavements are torn apart and (b), their width reduced to accommodate flower beds and patches of green. This is ridiculous, bizarre even. We dress up pavements so they look nice to passing motorists!

I say this with the greatest confidence: none of the good gentlemen who run our pavement affairs ever walk on them. When I walk on Delhi's new pavements — those that haven't been destroyed within a week because some idiot forgot to inform his colleague that he wanted to lay an electric cable — I find my experience hasn't improved despite the crores being spent.

One reason is the narrowing of pavements. The other is that no municipal pavement designer realises you cannot litter a pavement with obstacles like trees, shrubs and signposts.

I am certainly not saying cut the trees. I am saying these pavements can easily be customised for uninterrupted walking by winding around obstacles. Instead, they are being laid blindly with minimal or no supervision and a one-size-fits-all mentality, breaking up at the first obstacle. This is why you often see people braving traffic and walking on the road beside what appears to drivers to be a perfectly good pavement.

Every now and then, cities announce pavement initiatives. The tragedy is bureaucrats who clearly do not step out of their cars plan and implement these disasters. Take Mumbai's lesser twin, Thane, which will spend Rs 5 crore this year on "beautification" of pavements and roads as a "pilot project". The emphasis is always on beautifying pavements, not on creating world-class walking experiences.

Indian cities love using colourful tiles for pavements. Mumbai's municipal mavens love their "interlocking" tiles of red and yellow. In Delhi, someone's imagination has run riot, selecting tiles of various shades and size.

The problem: tiles break, especially on Indian pavements where they must often bear the weight of cars and two-wheelers. Hundreds of fancy, new sandstone tiles laid — shoddily and unevenly I might add — to match the Raj ambience of colonial Delhi have already splintered. I cannot understand why India cannot lay plain, even cement pavements as they do in most walking cities.

In poorest Peru, in the mountains of the Andes once governed by Maoists, I was struck how the government had laid simple concrete pavements in every village.

When I am in the US, I marvel at the ease with which physically challenged people go about their business, independent in their wheelchairs, on smooth, broad pavements thoughtfully sloped at the edge.

In India it's getting worse. Delhi had a walking culture. So did Mumbai and Bangalore.

I remember going for long walks with my parents in 1970s Delhi. The pavements were not fancy, but you could use them. People laughed if you took a car to the park. Today, entrances to parks are clogged with cars. Far too many citizens who walk on the streets never return.

If you judge a nation by the quality of its pavements, India is an uncaring, boorish country that could not be bothered with its most vulnerable citizens.

Last week, former West Bengal Governor Gopalkrishna Gandhi summarised our attitude to walking. He said vehicle owners in India have rights. And pedestrians? They have luck.