Will recent High Court orders change the way we experience the city?

One week ago, the Madras High Court issued orders, asking the Corporation of Chennai to remove encroaching bunk shops from footpaths in the city within four months. The Corporation is reportedly enumerating these shops to take action. Today, we have a report on how an expensive redevelopment of the footpaths will be undertaken..

The reports on footpath investments appearing in newspapers mention that one NGO - Institute for Transport and Development Policy - is offering suggestions to contractors on how to implement the new guidelines of the Indian Roads Congress. Walkers do not yet know what these guidelines are. What they do know is that even the old guidelines of the IRC have been ignored by the Corporation of Chennai. Transparent Chennai is surveying walkability. One wonders what happened to Exnora units, which used to be very active.

At a meeting organised by Confederation of Indian Industry on green mobility and the state of R and D in the automotive industry in Chennai a week ago, a senior executive from Chennai Metro Rail said it was a hair-raising experience for pedestrians to cross a small stretch near the Music Academy amidst mad traffic, because there is no footpath along the road. The situation is equally bad or worse in most shopping areas.

Contentious issue

The question of removing bunk shops is a contentious one. It involves primarily the rights of pedestrians, and in second order, the social opportunity available to many small traders to hawk various goods for a livelihood. It cannot be anyone’s claim that hawking is the fundamental purpose of a footpath. Equally, pedestrians will not insist that no one should share footpath space, after sufficient room is provided for walking.

The informed and correct view is that both activities are inter-linked, although hawking cannot be carried on at the cost of walking. There have been committees that have gone into this, and legislation is now pending at the Centre. What we need is proper definition of a hawker, what the dimensions of her hawking area should be, and the maximum space that it should occupy for a given footpath width, say, 30 per cent.

The elephant in the room is the growing appetite of motor vehicles for urban road space. There is an indirect subsidy for cars, vans and two-wheelers (one would not include public transport in this list, naturally) in terms of adding new roads, broadening existing ones and removing pedestrian infrastructure to provide more space for private vehicles. This hostile policy has reached ridiculous proportions. Most shockingly, successive governments have brazenly started advocating the policy of “road widening” even in interior residential localities, slicing up footpaths and putting pedestrians in the way of vehicles often driven by people who cannot even read and write.

What should the walker now expect from the new interest in high-cost granite footpaths along 71 bus route roads? Would there be any funding left for normal, simple footpaths in interior areas? Will the Corporation come forward with a “Sponsor a footpath” scheme, by which residents can pitch in with contributions and do up parts of the neighborhood walking space in their self-interest?

Removing bunk shops is an entirely political exercise, since these shops are important to oil the “mamool” (bribe) lines of some lower rungs of civic and police personnel everyday. Some inconvenient shops will be removed with a great deal of publicity, while others will stay put – similar to the way the prohibition of sticking of posters and placing of vinyl hoardings has worked. The political and filmi ones remain, while the weaker ones are brought down. Let’s wait and see how the CoC handles this one, although the results are largely predictable.

The problem is severe in other cities as well. This recent report from Kochi with comments from the Mayor Tony Chemmany, District Collector Sheikh Pareeth and Police Commissioner K.G.James highlights the dangerous race run by pedestrians everyday.