Make our cities walkable

Once, long ago, we taught the world to walk. It is time we walk the talk of our great masters of the past.
For representational purposes
For representational purposes

Many times, I have been asked whether I meditate. I am no fan of meditation as it is practiced commonly.

I am sure many have found their peace and even miracles in this practice.

I have no quarrel with them. I find no peace in sitting in a dark corner and looking into myself or counting my breath when there is so much beauty in the world outside to explore and enjoy.

Instead of sitting calm, I walk a lot. This piece isn’t about meditation but walking. 

Why are our cities so walking-unfriendly? India has a culture of walking. Who can forget the great Dandi march of Gandhiji that shook the foundations of the British empire?

Most ancient temples have circumambulation paths built around them and taking Pradakshina was mandatory.

Padyatra, the journey by foot, is an important part of traditional India. The pilgrimage to various holy centres and temples spread across the country ensured people walked a lot.

Even now, millions walk to the ancient pilgrimage spots like Sabarimala or in the annual Pandharpur Wari pilgrimage in Maharashtra.

Other such spots like Tirupathi or Palani have been ‘modernised’ with the introduction of electric winches, lifts and roads, thus defeating the entire purpose of the ‘Padyatra’ pilgrimage. 

In the Saddharma Pundarika Sutra or Lotus Sutra of Buddhists, Buddha is the most respected person to have walked on two feet.

He is loved and revered because he knew how to enjoy a good walk. Buddha says walking is one of the most important form of meditation, a deep spiritual practice.

Walking with the awareness of all the wonders of life within you and around you, walking soaked in life is true mediation.

In a culture that has given so much importance to walking, there is no space for its citizens to walk now. Modern Indian cities have turned the simple act of walking into a dangerous adventure sport. 

On an average, 56 pedestrians die in India every day.

Barely 30 per cent of Indian city streets have pedestrian pathways.

As per IIHS, pedestrians account for more than 40 percent of accidents on Indian roads, with Bengaluru faring the worst.

Three pedestrians are killed every two days in the city and more than 10,000 are hospitalised annually.

Bengaluru has better footpaths than most Indian cities, except perhaps the tiny New Delhi Municipal Council area where our top babus, ministers and diplomats live. Pavements in Mumbai are for everyone except the pedestrians.

Motorbikes negotiating the uneven pavements, skirting the missing manhole covers and weaving dexterously around the sleeping pavement dwellers, vendors and stray animals is a common sight in the streets of suburban Mumbai, while the poor pedestrian ploughs through the potholed road, sidestepping the filth and garbage and ignoring the honking of vehicles piling up behind him. Motorists consider zebra crossings as a strange mural, best ignored.

The moment any pedestrian steps into the zebra crossing, the motorist slams the accelerator pedal to the vehicle floor. 

Despite the huge growth in vehicle population, India is still a country with one of the least vehicle ownerships in the world.

Why are our cities being biased towards vehicular traffic? Crores are spent in creating fancy flyovers, while the poor pedestrian is left dangling.

Even where some money was spent in creating pedestrian infrastructure like the elevated walkways of Mumbai, the purpose was defeated at the design stage itself. The skywalks of Mumbai are pedestrian-unfriendly.

They hang above the chocked roads, rusted and ugly, an example of unimaginative civil planning and wastage of public resources, an eyesore.

None of these elevated pathways are friendly to the physically handicapped or the blind. Many of them now are abandoned, serving as a refuge for squatters or as a den of illegal activities. A fraction of the cost in making fancy roads could have been invested in lifts and escalators for taking pedestrians to these skywalks.

Travelators, as seen in the modern airports, could have served as a better mass transport option for shorter distances. 

A car occupies a huge real estate space of the city compared to a pedestrian. For transporting one person from Point A to Point B, it is one of the most inefficient and expensive method imaginable.

Yet, a lion’s share of urban budget is spent on making the commute of the vehicles easier at the cost of the pedestrian.

The infrastructure push is skewed towards the rich and the privileged. Cities are paying the price of the luxury for a privileged few to travel in their air-conditioned bubble, while the milling masses hop and jump through the filth and garbage of the non-existent footpaths.

While a disproportionately smaller population perch on their vehicles and choke the city streets with poisonous fumes and fill the air with the cacophony of impatient horns, the vast majority hang precariously from the footboards of rusted public transport buses or creaky suburban trains. Yet, the thrust is on making multi-laned roads and fancy flyovers than building a proper walkable pavement.

Indians are living more than ever. A huge chunk of the population is going to be aged by 2050.  Many of us who are in the productive age now and contributing to the country’s rapid growth will be in their sunset years in a decade or two.

More than 60 percent of Indians will be living in urban areas by then. Will our cities be livable by that time?

Or would they remain just conduits for furious cars zooming up and down, while the majority squirt through the chocked streets, breathing toxic fumes, fighting a failing health and looming depression? Once, long ago, we taught the world to walk.

It is time we walk the talk of our great masters of the past. Walking is meditation. Make our cities walkable.

Anand Neelakantan Author of Asura, Ajaya series, Vanara and Bahubali trilogy

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The New Indian Express