The citizen’s right to walk on a footpath that is built to accepted technical standards on a public street has been systematically attacked by official agencies and encroachers in Chennai

Do you really have a right to walk? The Constitution guarantees the citizen this right, although few pedestrians have sought to assert it by hauling indifferent and often lawless official agencies to the courts.

To be able to move freely throughout the territory of India is a right under Article 19 (1) (d) while the right to life and a healthy environment flows from Article 21. The law is clear, but it mostly does not work for those on foot. Governments are mainly concerned about the movement of more cars and other vehicles, not the pedestrian, who stands excluded from planning and enforcement.

(See inforgraphic at left)

The citizen’s right to walk on a footpath that is built to accepted technical standards on a public street has been systematically attacked by official agencies and encroachers in Chennai. This, despite successive civic governments spending staggering sums each year in the name of repairing roads and creating new facilities – Rs. 83 crore for bus route roads in 2012-13, and Rs. 333.27 crore earmarked by the Chennai Corporation for a grid system.

The electricity distribution agency, traffic police, and telephone companies put up pillars across footpaths already reduced to thin ribbons. Political parties eager to please leaders put up banners across footpaths, forcing the citizen to bend, if not crawl. No one protests – not the unions, pensioners, schools, disability groups, not even prominent diabetologists and cardiologists who know the value of walking for good health.

According to the census 2011, there are 26,553 people living in one square kilometre of Chennai, the highest density in the State. The other reality is that even the 370 km of roads that the Chennai Corporation says it maintains invariably do not have usable footpaths.

In the suburbs, in Kancheepuram and Tiruvallur districts, where high-priced housing is being created, the situation is abysmal.

When it comes to walking, the Chennaiite is disenfranchised. Some pay a terrible price – such as the young teacher, Sarala, who fell into an under-construction drain in encroachment-filled T. Nagar two years ago. Did Sarala not have a right to walk safely?

Walkers suffer because no one in the government takes the Indian Roads Congress (IRC) standards on pedestrian facilities seriously – they are not compelled to do so. Document 103-2012 from the IRC on pedestrian facilities sounds very technical, but it is the standard to which we should hold the Corporation and the suburban local bodies accountable. At the very minimum, it says, there should be a clear walking path, 1.8 metres wide, and unobstructed to a height of 2.2 metres.

A lot of the space that should go to the millions on foot is taken over by an army of fast and furiously honking cars and motorcycles. There are now about 130 cars per thousand people in Chennai (The Energy and Resources Institute, 2013), second only to choked New Delhi.

After all, as the Wall Street Journal saw it in 2010: ‘A New Detroit Rises in India’s South’. The other model, Singapore, which applies the brakes on cars quite strongly and encourages public transport, has lost its sheen for Chennai.

Walking as a right has to be asserted with a voice that is loud and clear. If the citizen focuses on his own street and neighbourhood, and calls authorities to account, change is inevitable.

Talk Back

We invite readers to participate in this campaign. You can email pictures of bad sidewalks (size not more than 1.5 MB) to myright@thehindu.co.in

In the email, please give your name, contact information, location of the sidewalk, 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.

Website: www.thehindu.com/chennai

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