Governments inflict harm on citizens by not providing space and infrastructure to walk
Not being able to walk is not being able to enjoy good health. That might be a truism, but there is research evidence to show that governments inflict harm on citizens by not providing space and infrastructure to walk.
At the end of May, The Lancet, a medical journal, reported that urban areas in developing countries are witnessing a higher prevalence of hypertension and diabetes. India may face an estimated 161 per cent rise in diabetes by 2025 from turn of the century figures. The number of diabetics in the country is about 62 million and pre-diabetics, 77 million, according to estimates published in a White Paper by diabetologist V. Mohan and others, not long ago. The figure for hypertension in the Indian population is nearly 23 per cent, as per data published by the World Health Organization this year.
If that is the problem, the most important part of the solution is to help people increase physical activity, starting with walking. Quite simply, the right to good health is linked to the right to walk, and therefore to maintaining quality of life.
The unwalkable state of most Chennai roads indicates that public health concerns are not central to either urban planning or expenditure budgets. To compound pedestrians’ woes, the State transport department has not addressed the question of augmenting public transport (which the Chennai Comprehensive Transportation Study 2010 data pointed out). The formation of the Chennai Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority has not made things better.
The Chennai Corporation does not provide encroachment-free footpaths to bus termini or railway stations; the Southern Railway does not maintain station approaches and premises with good surfaces and lighting; and the State government does not have accurate data on just how many people use various forms of public transport to make policy. That is due to unticketed and unregulated travel modes such as share autos that have grown in popularity.
This fragmented set of factors is a serious impediment to public health. It imposes disease and the resulting high financial costs on a significant section of the population that is forced to use vehicles even for the shortest of trips. A two-wheeler becomes essential for an errand in the local neighbourhood because the vehicle-dominated roads are dirty, often full of stagnant filthy pools after rains, and aesthetically unpleasant. Chennai is subjecting its pedestrians to rising vehicular traffic, noise, pollution and gridlock.
But is there evidence that improving walking facilities also improves health, and potentially reduces health costs? The answer is yes. Last year, a study done in Britain reported that the National Health Service could reduce its expenditure on a range of diseases linked to physical inactivity, including diabetes and hypertension complications, dementia, cancer and depression, by £17 billion over a 20-year period, by helping people walk more. These funds could therefore technically be used to meet other public health challenges under the welfare system operating in the UK
The crucial difference is that Indians have no universal health coverage paid for by taxes, and health expenditure is mostly met out-of-pocket. The policy failure of civic bodies and State governments to enable walking thus proves costly to citizens in more ways than one.
Fortunately, this is a problem that can be solved primarily with political will, since the small funds necessary for improving walkability and public transport can be collected through a painless levy on the users of motor vehicles (the Comprehensive Traffic and Transportation Study counted 28 lakh vehicles in 2009, and the figure has risen dramatically since).
The single biggest factor that is poised to incentivise walking is the Chennai Metro. As a modern system — awaiting expansion in subsequent phases — it may attract many to leave their vehicles at home, walk to the nearest station and ride. That would give many citizens the necessary health-building 30 or 40 minutes of activity they need every day. With citizen pressure, Chennai’s static bus system can modernise too and strengthen pedestrianisation.
We invite readers to participate in this campaign. You can email pictures of bad pavements (size not more than 1.5 MB) to firstname.lastname@example.org
Please send a picture of yourself.
In the email, please give your name, contact information, location of the pavement, description of the issue and action required.
Your pictures will be posted on www.facebook.com/chennaicentral and will also be considered for publication in the newspaper.