The single biggest activity promoting good health is walking, but Indian cities are notorious for their hostility to walkers. To be able to move freely throughout the territory of India is a fundamental right of every citizen under Article 19 of the Constitution. So is the right to a healthy environment that flows from Article 21 that guarantees the right to live and liberty. Despite this, those who walk are denied these rights daily by the governments and municipal authorities that appear more concerned about facilitating movement of motorised vehicles, mostly privately owned.
The citizen’s right to walk on a footpath that is built to accepted technical standards on a public street has been systematically attacked by official agencies and encroachers in Indian cities. Chennai, for instance, is the densest city in Tamil Nadu with 26.553 people living in one square kilometre area. Yet even the 370km roads that the Chennai Corporation says it maintains lack usable footpaths. The heavy traffic in city streets all over the country may give the impression that most commuters use motorised transportation for commuting. But, according to the government’s estimates, roughly 30 per cent of city dwellers across India commute daily by walking. An additional 27 per cent walk to take a bus and almost all metro users walk before they can rise. Yet the authorities have no respect for their rights. That’s why pavements are the first casualty of street widening to accommodate cars.
It is time India city planners adopted a charter of rights for pedestrians on European patterns to enable them to enjoy amenities offered by public areas under conditions that safeguard their physical and psychological well-being. While government policy must boost public transport in cities in a big way, state and local authorities must ensure footpaths along all major roads and deterrent punishment for encroachers.