Power to the Pedestrian
“Power to the people” is a slogan now rarely heard. To many, all it means is electrification of homes! Yet, these four words have the force of history behind them. They connote a philosophy, a system of governance, which has swept across the globe, laying low many a king, feudal lord and dictator. Not all autocrats and despots have disappeared yet, but the idea of people’s power has certainly shaken them.
Democracy is a necessary means of empowering people; however, to the extent it is restricted to voting, it is far from sufficient. Electoral democracy has many limitations – even drawbacks – especially when it degenerates into majoritarianism or unregulated license. Oppression of the few by the many is, unfortunately, not an unknown by-product of democracy. Ironically, the reverse – small organized groups of hoodlums holding the majority to ransom (as in many bandhs and strikes) – is also facilitated by “democratic freedom” and encouraged by vote-bank politics. If empowerment of every individual is the goal, it is necessary to go beyond mere elections and ensure: participatory democracy; tolerance and encouragement of diversity in life-style and thought; decentralization of political and economic power; and equitable access to information, communication and education.
Decentralization – through the creation of a third level of formal governance by Constitutional amendments empowering Panchayats and urban local bodies –and the Right to Information Act have, together, given a huge boost to grass-roots democracy and accountability. Potentially, these are revolutionary steps in truly transferring power to the people. Yet, the actual realization of this is stymied by many obstacles and sometimes contradicted by other measures. The rich and powerful continue to enjoy special privileges and wield influence completely disproportionate to their numbers; they also appropriate a far bigger share of public expenditure than is justified. The plight of the pedestrian is a good metaphor for this.
Political netas and corporate leaders are hardly ever seen walking in the streets of our cities (though a few do run on them during marathons). Therefore, pedestrians – mostly the ubiquitous but indefinable “common man” – get short shrift. Over the last few years, the motor car has been getting ever-greater precedence over the pedestrian and the cyclist. Foot-paths have been shrinking in a flurry of road-widening projects, and even existing cycle-lanes have disappeared. An attempt in Delhi to give precedence to cycles and buses through dedicated lanes (as part of a bus rapid transit system) has met tremendous resistance from motorists. Fortunately, following its success in Delhi, a “metro” (train) system is now being put in place in major cities. However, one is not sure if this is a genuine recognition of the dire need to create mass public transportation systems, or is merely the flavor of the day.
The doubt about decision-makers’ serious commitment to efficient public mobility arises from the contrast between the hundreds of crores being spent on fly-overs and road-expansion in cities, and the distinct miserliness and lethargy with regard to procurement of buses and facilities for pedestrians. The priority for cars at the cost of pedestrians is evidenced by the “free left turn” at traffic signals. While this facilitates the movement of vehicular traffic, the resulting continuous flow means that a pedestrian wanting to cross the road must either be capable of out-running Usain Bolt, or be a great believer in re-incarnation! Pedestrian over-bridges and sky-walks would be solutions but these, unlike the proliferation of fly-overs, are a rarity. Escalators and lifts to help the aged or differently-abled to use overbridges – where they exist – are, of course, unaffordable, unlike fly-overs! Pedestrian subways are but few; in Delhi, the aspiring world-class city, they are so filthy and unsafe that no one uses them. This, but naturally, does not bother decision-makers.
In contrast, in many cities around the world, the pedestrian is getting increasing importance – and space. In London – a second home to many of India’s rich and powerful – the width of the foot-paths on Oxford Street, for example, is probably double that of the road. Despite the very heavy traffic and constant congestion, no one even thinks of widening the road at the cost of the foot-path. In many other cities, particularly in Europe, large areas are “pedestrian-only” zones. The result, despite adverse weather for many months in the year, is far more walkers. Most people there walk to and from the nearest station or bus-stop. In contrast, our shrinking, uneven and often non-existent foot-paths discourage walking. Those who do walk are often left with no option but to use the road – disrupting traffic and risking injury. Little wonder that Indians prefer to use a car even for short distances. On the other hand, London and Singapore, amongst other cities, levy steep congestion charges on cars entering designated parts of the city, thereby discouraging use of private transport while reducing pollution and traffic density.
In most countries, public authorities and vehicle drivers respect pedestrian rights, giving walkers the right-of-way in many situations. In India, cars run on fuel power, but also on feudal power: they assume almost divine right-of-way everywhere. Government’s actions – through its investment policy, priorities and its disdain for pedestrians – reinforce this sense of superiority. Even in Mumbai, a city in which the off-spring of the upper-classes too used to travel to school or college by bus or the “local” (train), the change is perceptible; driven, doubtless, by the neglect and decay of a public transport system trying hard to retain its legendary efficiency.
To make “power to the people” beyond mere cliché, what better way than by empowering pedestrians? Here is an opportunity for the Central and State governments to work closely with the third tier, the urban body, and initiate a major exercise in pedestrianisation; to put this in the same class, and with similar priority and resources, as building fly-overs or modernizing airport terminals. Industry and civil society must play a major role in shaping this new societal architecture and life-style, one that is environment-friendly and empowering.