In the post-liberalisation era, urbanisation has been taking place at a rapid pace. Towns and cities are growing both vertically and horizontally; attempts are made to beautify them under various plans funded by domestic and international funding agencies. New townships are coming up with claims of providing several amenities to the people. They are being developed as corporate entities. But in this process of development, where does the ordinary citizen in a city stand today?
In the older cities of the second and third tiers which hold a “huge potential” for growth, road widening and concretisation are a priority area. For this, buildings by the side of the existing roads are demolished. Hawkers who earn their livelihood by selling their wares on footpaths or at the corners of roads are evicted. Sometimes, whatever is called a footpath is also taken over by the proposed new road. The objective is to make available adequate space for laying two-or three-lane concrete roads. The targeted beneficiaries of this development effort are obviously the motor car/heavy vehicle and two-wheeler owners.
Our concept of urbanisation stops at that level with the least concern for the common citizen. Take, for example, the footpaths. They have started vanishing from the new roads. Either there is no space, for the space acquired is just enough for the road proposed or the little space available is used by shops and establishments to park their own or their customers' vehicles. Such parking takes place literally in the portion of the road meant to be used as a footpath.
Wherever footpaths are developed, very often there is no barricade to protect the citizens using them from motorists, especially two-wheelers, who jump the traffic signal. In most places, the new footpaths are uneven making them risky for an unsuspecting senior citizen. There are also electric and telephone poles competing for space on many so-called footpaths, exposing people to serious danger.
A frequently noticed feature is road digging, a round-the-year activity, which cuts into the footpath as well. There are no warning signs; pedestrians have to stray on to the edge of the road. In cities with inadequate streetlights or with power shutdowns walking on such roads exposes people to life risks.
Another shortcoming noticed is the absence of properly marked pedestrian crossings. At busy traffic intersections, or busy roads even with road crossings, motorists in smaller cities do not respect the pedestrians' rights to cross. An errant driver hardly gets noticed or hauled up by the traffic police. I have often seen children and elderly citizens waiting and waiting for the traffic to subside but when they start crossing, from nowhere a vehicle speeds past creating a scare. The absence of zebra crossings has become a threat to the life and person of citizens in most cities.
In a democracy, people have a right to protest in a non-violent way. The protest could take the form of demonstrations, holding of placards, dharna, procession and meetings. There used to be space for these activities in the past so that the anger and resentment of the common citizens could be expressed in the presence of the authorities concerned. In a city like Delhi, we can understand the problems. But today in the smaller cities, certain areas are declared prohibited for security reasons. The citizens have no access to such places. The maidans or grounds which were earlier available for meetings are now either permanently rented out or they are just not there. Where do the citizens assemble to protest? In case of protest marches, political parties get permission quickly, whereas apolitical organisations, which do not have clout, find it difficult to do so.
Our urban planning should take a comprehensive view. While the cities should develop and infrastructure should be upgraded from time to time to meet the growing needs, it is necessary to take care of people who do not have clout. Better roads are not the end in themselves. Comfort for all citizens who constitute the core of a city should be the objective of our urbanisation plans.