A button jab worth of equality

June 28, 2018 12:00 am | Updated 04:15 am IST

Is the constant dismissal of pedestrians and cyclists as a component of street traffic a class problem?

One of my favourite experiences while travelling in more developed nations is the button you can press whenever pedestrians want to cross the road. I love those buttons affixed to poles at every crossing. They make a pedestrian feel like she’s something too. It makes you feel like your life is a little bit more valuable than ten seconds in the lives of people who happen to be in cars. It reminds you that you are equally human, and the fact that you’re using your own two feet to get around makes you more deserving of consideration, not less.

This thing about bicycles and sidewalks and the constant dismissal of pedestrians as a component of street traffic — it’s basically a class problem in India. There are hierarchies in developed nations too, but the class groups aren’t watertight compartments. Those who drive cars also ride bicycles and also take long walks. Those who walk to work may well possess cars, choosing to drive only on weekends. People may drive to work, but prefer to walk to restaurants or clubs in the evening.

In India, class is a visible phenomenon. Usually, the pedestrian is at the bottom of the heap. She, or he, does not own any motoring assets. And so, what right have they to expect that they can actually cross the road safely? And if they do cross, they must do so at their risk, and only after a patient wait at the traffic lights. They certainly don’t get to control how long they must wait, or how much further they have to walk before they can find a proper zebra crossing and a traffic light.

Those who ride bicycles often cannot afford motorcycles or scooters or cars. Cyclists are mainly men running errands, not doing it for pleasure or exercise. Errand boys, tradesmen, freelance professionals may be carting packages as heavy as their own body weight. They could also be young students from middle-class families, but increasingly, in bigger cities, students take buses, trains, or rickshaws.

The adult middle-class cyclist is an anomaly in India (I know of only six such among several hundred friends and acquaintances). I also remember the time when one of them was barred from entering a complex where discussions and arts events are hosted. He was riding a bicycle and clearly didn’t fit the security guard’s image of someone who deserves to access art or join interesting conversations about society. It wasn’t until he began to argue in English that class privilege was re-established and the guards relented.

Nowadays, some states are talking of barring cyclists from major roads. There is not much noise about this, so I am guessing most middle-class people would prefer it that way. Or would they?

There must be a knot of worry in upper-class hearts about bad times. What happens if they cannot afford chauffeurs to ferry kids to school ? Will they have to find worse ways of making more money to pay for cars and fuel and chauffeurs? Will the kids die, trying to cross a road?

Surely, even the elite must prefer the idea of a country where such questions aren’t necessary.

The author is a writer of essays, stories, poems and scripts for stage and screen

Stripes in the limelight

Reportedly, the world’s most famous zebra crossing is the one featured on The Beatles’Abbey Roadalbum. It is located in North London.

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