In several Indian cities, about 20 to 40 per cent of daily trips made by residents are by foot

People like me must figure quite low on the priority list of policy makers. Or so it seems, every time I decide to walk somewhere — to a friend’s place in the neighbourhood, the market just a kilometre away, or the ATM kiosk almost right next door.

Each footpath offers a lesson. One that tells us that life, at least during the time spent walking, is largely about ups, downs, bumps, sign boards, electricity junction boxes, iron rods and garbage.

You step on one and optimistically go ahead, only to be interrupted by a junction box that refuses to give way. You step down, to walk along the margin of the road. And that is no hassle-free experience, either. One has to adopt a sort of dual strategy to negotiate space through parked cars and garbage bins, simultaneously keeping an eye for speeding vehicles, which are also waging a noisier battle for space.

If there is no junction box, there is garbage that even the overflowing bin nearby rejected. If there is no garbage, it could only mean a ‘clever’ resident fenced the footpath outside their homes, either to create a little garden or to simply to keep everyone, including pedestrians, away. Consequently, rightful users of the facility are denied their right to safety on the road.

If this is the case in neighbourhoods that are fairly residential in character, imagine the plight of the pedestrian who ventures out on an arterial road. Expect to be interrupted by a loud ‘Meals Ready’ sign board spelling out the day’s menu, a petty shop, or a row of parked bikes. In commercial areas, you can see shops having painstakingly built a slope near the pavement, just so that their two-wheelers could be parked safely. Some pavements are rickety, with stones jutting out. Watch out, or you’re very likely to trip and fall. This is the story of the average pedestrian who is neglected and feels completely lost. Senior citizens or persons with disability have an even rawer deal.

In several Indian cities, about 20 to 40 per cent of daily trips made by residents are by foot — and Chennai is no exception. In a 2011 study undertaken by Clean Air Initiative for Asian Cities, an NGO, in six Indian cities, Chennai scored 47 upon 100 on the ‘walkability' index. The city was ranked last in a similar ‘walkability index’ study covering 21 Asian cities.

The problem, clearly, is that no one cares enough for the pedestrian.

Chennai will have the much-awaited Metro Rail in a few years’ time. Possibly, a good mono rail system too. It might have an improved MTC service and an enhanced MRTS coverage. When an ambitious, inter-modal, public transit system for the city is being unraveled in phases, one would think that the pedestrian will be in sharp focus. But unless government agencies wake up to the issue soon, the pedestrian will be left in the middle of the road, literally.

Going by the zonal-level budgetary allocation of the Chennai Corporation’s in its recent budget, the amount dedicated to pavements in each of its 15 zones ranges from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 2 lakh. The civic body is also embarking on a grand overhaul for 60 bus route roads, in addition to taking up improvements works on several other roads. Additionally, as many as 360 roads in the newly added areas of the Corporation’s limits are to be taken up for integrated development as part of the Chennai Mega City Development Mission.

Raj Cherubal of Chennai City Connect, an NGO which works of traffic and transportation issues, says the civic body seems inclined to make life better for pedestrians. “The Mayor and senior officials have told us that while we work on improving arterial roads, we must keep in mind upgradation of footpaths and other facilities for pedestrians,” said Cherubal, who is working with the Corporation to train some of its engineers. Mayor Saidai S. Duraisamy has said “care would be taken” to make sure the facilities are adequate.

But until such promises materialise, the pedestrian has no choice but to cling on to hope and — while navigating busy roads — to his life.

Meera Srinivasan is the Deputy City Editor of The Hindu.

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