If Rs. 333.27 crore is to be spent on roads and footpaths, how much of it will benefit walkers?

“It is not the genes that you share with your parents that matter, it is the jeans that you wear that matter.” That motivating piece of advice comes from Dr. K. Srinath Reddy, the campaigning cardiologist who is president of the Public Health Foundation of India, and it addresses a major concern among Indians - an expanding waistline and its effects. Dr. Reddy told an audience of physicians as part of an oration in memory of diabetologist Professor M. Viswanathan that an individual may have a genetic susceptibility to abdominal obesity, but that need not necessarily be the outcome. Physical activity can substantially alter the results.

Good health depends on multiple factors. The growing body of medical evidence on lifestyle should encourage governments to tweak their policies to encourage healthy behaviour. Mauritius, for example, replaced palm oil with soya in public supplies, and brought down the cardiovascular disease burden in the population. By modifying policy to promote physical activity, governments can reap the rewards of better economic productivity and lower health spending. Individuals can lead healthier lives. And what better activity than walking? After all, research in the US shows that many people who “walk to transit” - take a bus or train - achieve the recommended goal of 30 minutes or more of daily walking.

Unfortunately, Chennai has a hostile relationship with walkers. Walking in the public space is treated as a necessary evil, something that deserves little support. Political leaders big and small, senior bureaucrats and successful businessmen just cannot imagine making a trip on foot. Their contempt for walking is reflected in the condition of almost every street. At least four feet on the margins of most roads, notionally designated for walkers, is not in usable condition.

In residential areas, this precious real estate is just dead, useless space. In commercial areas, it is usurped not so much by small hawkers, as big commercial establishments including TASMAC liquor shops. Urban policy now favours Toyota Fortuners, Mahindra Scorpios, XUVs and various other metal hulks over people. The fall of the pedestrian, which began with the auto liberalisation policy of the 80s (the two-wheeler boom), has become irreversible with the car industry virtually setting priorities for roads. Walking even for utilitarian purposes is now dangerous. Healthy behaviour of the kind that Dr. Reddy advocates in public spaces would, sadly, appear utopian.

The problem can only get worse if the city's managers do not intervene. Look at what is bound to happen. When Metro trains start operating, a rake made up of four coaches is expected to carry a peak load of 1,276 passengers. If even one quarter of those passengers exit a station during peak hour, they would find it hard to make their way on the road outside and walk along thin broken strips that pass for footpaths. This is not hypothetical, and is the frustrating reality even today on the suburban rail system.

The Chennai Corporation and the Chennai City Traffic Police have not made life easy for commuters. A 9-car suburban train seats about 1,000 people, and with standing room, carries many more. Whether it is Saidapet, Kodambakkam, Mambalam or Egmore, all inner-city areas, the road to the station is filled with obstacles. Footpaths here exist only in name. Outlying stations are often in worse shape, connected by badly lit, broken and dangerous roads.

So will walkers (many people resent the term ‘pedestrian' because of its condescending tone) get a better deal, now that the AIADMK government is talking of spending staggering sums on roads and footpaths? If Rs. 333.27 crore is to be spent, as one recent report said, how much of it will benefit walkers and how much will go to subsidise car use? Only a “people first” policy can have a profound impact on public health.

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