Monday, May 29, 2006

A view from the sidewalk

I often took my grandmother out for short walks. These walks were her only "window" to the outside world and she treasured them a lot inspite of her failing health. I couldnt take her to the local park for fear that she would be struck by a Baichung-inspired football shot. So we took a walk around the locality.

The walk wasnt too long, but still it tired her out. It wasnt the hot and humid Kolkata weather. That was still manageable. The biggest difficulty was negotiating the interruptions in the pavement. As it is the pavement was high enough. But when there was a break in the pavement, she had to gather all her strength to bend down and then step up when the pavement-break ended. For a restless 12 yr old, the whole process seemed to be never-ending. I still remember the pain on her face. But I was her favourite grandson and she was generous with sweets, so I didnt protest much. The height of that pavement nearly matched the ones near Panchsheel enclave (by far the biggest ones that I saw in Delhi). More than one feet high! It is tiring to walk up and down on them, to say the least. If I were an ant on the street, maybe I would need a pole vault to jump onto it.

Later when I landed here in California, I observed that there were a lot of old/disabled/ handicapped people around. I found it odd. It didnt take long to understand that systems here are much suited even for them to travel around. And that made their visibility prominent.

Policy-makers in India are never pedestrians. By the time they acquire the trappings of power, roads are just scenes from the car windows en route to a busy day at the office. One has to actually walk on the pavements/ side-walks to know that their height, width and breaks can make life so uncomfortable for pedestrians. Witness the Rajiv Gandhi Setu near AIIMS where pedestrians jitterily walk across the stretch for fear of being run over.

Raj Cherubal articulates the situation much better in his post Sidewalks now. I liked especially his Wheelchair test for sidewalks where he puts forth a test to improve pedestrians' experience of the sidewalk. Especially for physically-challenged people.

Why not ask old people groups ? (Yes I realise old people are no longer called old people. They are, I suppose, differently youthed people or something like that.) But I figured when old people can actually walk on the streets, without the fear of being mowed down by an assorted variety of vehicular manslaughterites, especially because of my patented 'Wheelchair test' idea, that would be respect enough.

When a road and its sidewalks are built, or so claimed by the road and sidewalk authorities, let us unleash the old people on them. Whip out the wheelchairs and test the sidewalks. Count the number of old people and their wheelchair pushers in the test team. Chalk out the routes. A to B. B to C. C to Z. Ready, set, go! After the trip count the number of people in the team. If no one is missing, the team did not have to get down from the sidewalk, etc. test passed. Else failed. Sue government. Take authorities to court. Picket the city corporation. Repeat until success.

Wouldn't that be an inspiring sight ? Large groups of old people and their well wishers testing their sidewalks. Also, no complicated physics, chemistry or mechanical and civil engineering to tell us whether the road and the sidewalk actually works.

Having worked earlier with Raj in a public policy think-tank in India, I look forward to some engaging ideas and thoughts from his blog on urban governance.

From my real-world and academic experience in public policy, I know that nothing works like transparent standards. If a contractor has said that he has made a 3.5 inch deep tar/ cement road. Nothing like whipping out a toolkit to actually dig deep and measure it. The organisation Parivartan in Delhi made a huge success out of this "street-transparency." To add to Raj's suggestions, part of the problem lies with urban policy-makers lack of standards for designing side-walks. Standards imply there will be more thought and feedback for designing appropriate side-walks.

Back to the Top

Back to the Top