MNS protest against Mumbai potholes is a bigger attack against pedestrians!

To protest potholes, axe-wielding men of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) dig up a well-laid footpath. Government authorities evict vendors from station premises and allow car parking in the space. Who cares for the pedestrian in Mumbai?

In our deeply undemocratic traffic system, we need to call out how strong the automobile lobby is, how suppressed pedestrians are and how small is the resistance from pedestrians and public transport uses.

Consider this: peaceful, democratic protesters are not allowed by a force-wielding police to come anywhere near Mantralaya. They are confined to a corner some 2 km away in Azad Maidan, in a corner, rendered invisible to the people. But axe-wielding men of the Maharashtra Navanirman Sena (MNS) could easily dig up the footpath right in front of the state government headquarters, supposedly to protest the presence of potholes on city roads!

Cut to the Western India Automobile Association (WIAA), which will complete its centenary next year. It has a big office, ironically right opposite the Churchgate suburban train terminus. It has 40,000 members and it is in the Indian Merchants Chamber building. Plus it has other properties. It is the merchants, the industrialists and motorists who call the shots when it comes to policies and the government listens to them, not to common people.

Chief ministers and other ministers, top police officials routinely attend WIAA functions and campaigns. Has one ever heard of them ever having a dialogue with pedestrian activists, or taking time to listen to the grievances of pedestrians – that vast majority of people who are victims of the car and big capital-dictated form of transport and traffic?

This is not only a matter of great social injustice. It shows that the government has no understanding of the issues of climate change and carbon footprint. Pedestrians and public transport users are a great asset because their carbon footprint is very little or nil. If carbon credits are given to non-polluting industries, pedestrians and public transport users need to be recognised at the least. They are the unsung heroes of the urban form.

A regular ‘rasta roko’ against the common man

The problem is this is deliberate. During a recent interaction with activists, Kiran Nagarkar, well-known novelist, floated the idea that some kind of a rasta-roko agitation could be held to check the growing congestion caused by cars, to assert people’s right to the road and to help increase the speed of BEST buses in Mumbai.

The car lobby, the traffic police and the whole establishment will surely not relish this. But it would probably serve as a reminder that their policies are resulting in something like a rasta roko for millions of people every day in the whole country.

Let us see how the system resorts to Rasta Roko against common people every day. Turner road or Guru Nanak road is an important arterial road in Bandra West which the government now wants to connect to the proposed coastal road. Here the pedestrian crossing time given is just five seconds. The fittest person would not be able to cross even half the road. So one has to wait for another 180 seconds or so at the intersection breathing poisonous fumes emitted by cars.

Then again, the well-planned digging by supporters of Raj Thackeray shows the deeply anti-people nature of a section of the political class. Simply because the attack was not directed against human beings does not make it any less sinister than recent lynchings or the assault on Swami Agnivesh.

So, what is the point MNS was trying to make? That we should have pothole free roads. Which is fine. But clearly that is not enough for them. They must symbolically attack the minimum facility of footpaths that ordinary people and pedestrians have managed to obtain for themselves even in the face of a deep hostility among a section of the bureaucracy and politicians.

An entrenched bias against the ‘walking class’

A good section of the motoring class in our country share the deep antipathy of the rich and famous towards pedestrians, and also footpaths. This class believes it must have full freedom of the road, others don’t deserve space, that they are in fact a nuisance and come in the way of motor traffic. The footpath stands for the aspiration of these common people. Those in power want to deny even this little facility and the authorities, irrespective of affiliation, are quite brazen about it.

In the nineties during the first Sena-BJP coalition rule in Maharashtra, Nitin Gadkari, then the state PWD minister, and a senior bureaucrat had a dialogue with journalists in the Times of India office. When I asked about the neglect of pedestrians amidst high sounding development schemes, the bureaucrat had the temerity to say that given a choice, he would remove even existing footpaths since they are taken over by vendors anyway. That is like cutting the head to prevent a headache.

The government machinery itself is hostile to pedestrians. This is clear from the traffic right outside Mantralaya which this writer has noticed for the last 40 years.  Vehicles merrily flout the signal right in the presence of police in this prime area.

By the way, it is also interesting to note how some private developers provide excellent, wide footpaths, as in the Hiranandani complex in Powai, for marketing and aesthetic purposes. The number of pedestrians here is, however, very small as all residents own cars, mostly expensive ones and these people seldom walk on the footpath.

Here lies the deep irony. There is a complete mismatch between real need and supply. The upper class is grabbing a disproportionate size of urban land. I noticed this particularly during a visit last week. After a smooth ride by Ola, I was jolted back to harsh reality when I reached Dadar and saw the shabby platforms at the suburban train station and the footpaths outside. A clear case of private luxury versus public squalor.

A policy on paper only?

It has to be pointed out that the government is flouting its own transport policy, which lays emphasis on facilities for public transport, not private cars.

Most disturbing is the report that the municipal body in Mumbai will spend its own funds of some Rs 56 crore for an underground car park below Jhula Maidan in Madanpura in central Mumbai. The park will surely accommodate no more than 200 cars and some 300 two wheelers. So it is utterly childish to expect that such parks will in anyway lessen the problem of car parking.

And hello! Providing a car park is not really the priority of the civic body. Why is it drawing from the common man’s budget for this? Our rulers don’t seem to have the foggiest idea of severe parking restriction norms in developed countries.

Look at the extremely ill-conceived proposal to grant high floor space index for builders to build more high-rise buildings near railway tracks. After poor vegetable vendors have been removed from the area around Dadar station (west), much of the open space there is anyway occupied by car and motor cycle parking. So, while the government removes poor daily wage earners from the vicinity of suburban railway stations on the very pretext of reducing congestion in the area, the same government is comfortable with more congestion in that area when it is caused by the rich and their motor cars.

It is ironical that a big police van is permanently stationed in this area to prevent the poor from sitting in the little lanes to sell their ware. The police have a very intimidating presence here as in other similar spots across the city. But Raj Thackeray’s men had no problem in defying the police outside the headquarters of the state administration and legislature. That tells us a lot.

Need for a revolution?

Pedestrians clearly need to organise themselves. The Pedestrian Association of England, now Living Streets, was set up way back in 1929 by Lord Cecil, a peace activist who viewed deaths caused by cars much like the evils of warfare.

Even at that time the motoring class had the same attitude of contempt towards pedestrians. Motoring journals viewed pedestrian deaths as suicides, as if common people wanted to kill themselves in front of cars. The same logic seems to prevail now as well.

There is clearly a need for the users and victims of our deeply unjust, unequal transport system to organise themselves. Small beginnings have been made. The Sustainable Urban Mobility Network, or SUMNET, representing activists and organisations from different parts of the country has been working for the last nine years and is making its voice heard.

In Mumbai, the Aamchi Mumbai Aamchi Best, campaign has been formed to save the BEST bus undertaking, a pioneer public sector body in the country, now suffering from municipal and government neglect and attempts at privatisation. In Bangalore, the Bangalore Bus Prayanikara Vedike is active in campaigning for improving the city bus service and it has taken the lead to bring together bus activists from different parts of the country.

All urban areas need to form such groups. There is not much citizen activism even in big cities like New Delhi and Kolkata though in Delhi, organisations like the Centre for Science and Environment and IIT Delhi are doing  important work while the Ahmedabad-based Centre for Environment Education is working in different areas.

Western countries are realising that a car-dominated streetscape is sterile and it is necessary to create a more people friendly ambience in which people can walk, socialise on footpaths, life can be enjoyable and this fosters community spirit and democracy. Even Ford Motor Company has realised this and is sponsoring a big movement to make New York’s streets more pedestrian and community-friendly.

In contrast, our upper class citizen groups are too focussed on creating facilities for leisure walking like Joggers’ Parks and promenades. That is ok. But the real need is to build footpaths all over a city, which would be crucial to millions of working class people who have to walk daily to earn a living. Unfortunately, the government and the upper class have no understanding of these needs. How else does one explain the near absence of footpaths on Malabar Hill, the residential area for Mumbai’s governing political and capitalist class?

This is the 50th year of the student protest movement of 1968 which created a great awakening among people and gave a new light of hope. Those days are recorded in the book Street Fighting Years written by Tariq Ali, a stalwart of those days.

And the word ‘street fight’ need not cause alarm. It is the title of another book by Janette Sadik Khan, former traffic commissioner of New York, who brought in a number of reforms in the city by reducing access to motor cars and bringing about some kind of democracy on roads. She had to fight vested interests and hence the title of the book.

Walking, cycling, taking public transport are little acts of resistance against a car-dominated, capital-dominated unjust, unequal transport system. Let me recall a statement often made to me in his retirement days by Mr J.B. D’souza, former BEST general manager and then municipal commissioner and chief secretary of the Maharashtra government, “There almost seems to be a conspiracy against the pedestrian in this city.”

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