One evening a couple of years ago, I was seated at a table on the first floor at Maiya’s Cafe, near the beautiful Shri Dharmanatha Shvetambar Jain Temple in Jayanagar, Bangalore. The atmosphere was relaxed and the conversation good, as I enjoyed eating the excellent masala dosa and putting the world to rights with a friend. The focus of our conversation was however, abruptly shifted when my attention was drawn to the street below. As always, the cacophonous traffic, with blarting horns and revving motorcycles, kamikaze cyclists, and meandering dogs and cattle was weaving yet another tangled knot of slow moving metal into every inch of available space. This in itself was nothing remarkable, and indeed replicated a scene that could be found on almost any thoroughfare in Bangalore for about fifteen hours each day. What was noteworthy however, was the lady who amidst all of this hurly burly and chaos was pushing an elderly gentleman along the middle of the road in a wheelchair.
For a moment I was quite speechless as I observed her gladiatorial determination to challenge every approaching vehicle, as she strode purposefully along the centre of the highway, seemingly determined to assert her ownership of the space that she occupied, and daring any to question her right to be there. The gentleman in the wheelchair appeared surprisingly relaxed amongst the melee of traffic, either exhibiting total confidence in his pilot, or simply oblivious to the impending danger. The latter seems hardly possible. Turning to my friend we questioned the prudence of venturing out into the battleground roads of Bangalore pushing a wheelchair, and bemoaned a situation in which it has become impossible for pedestrians, let alone those pushing wheelchairs, pushchairs or childrens’ buggies to travel safely along the streets of the city. The gradual erosion of footpaths, many stolen in order to make greater accommodation for motorised vehicles, the poor maintenance of those paths that do remain and the depositing of building materials, rubbish and countless other obstacles on the pavements, means that progress is hindered even for the fleet of foot.
For all of its bold claims of creating a fairer and more inclusive society, the Indian Government has at both national and local levels given little consideration to the accessibility of the streets of Bangalore for the disabled, elderly or mothers with small children. I have through this blog often praised the Indian authorities for their determination to address issues of inequality through legislation such as the Right to Free and Compulsory Education Act, but the issue of inclusion needs to be addressed holistically and not simply through one aspect of people’s lives. Education can certainly effect change for the better, but many other aspects of community development and cohesion are currently lagging behind.
Perhaps things are beginning to change. An article in today’s Guardian newspaper, written by Aparna Joshi under the headline “As ever more traffic clogs Mumbai’s streets, pedestrians find a weekly breathing space” (24th November 2014) provides a glimmer of hope that the situation could be improved. Joshi describes how fifteen non-government organisations in Mumbai have come together to create the “Equal Streets Movement,” which has a specific aim of drawing the attention of government to the lack of pedestrian facilities and the increasing dangers imposed by vastly burgeoning levels of traffic. The aim of this movement is described as a democratisation of the use of roads, through increased awareness of the dangers and obstacles confronted by pedestrians and cyclists on a daily basis. Joshi describes how in 2013 – 2014 a further 50,000 cars and 94,000 motorcycles entered the swelling ranks of vehicles on Mumbai’s roads. A figure that is destined to continue increasing as more middle class Indians seek to display their affluence by purchasing more, and ever larger cars.
The Equal Streets Movement has made a small but significant stride forward in raising awareness of this catastrophic situation. For just four hours each Sunday morning, a four mile stretch of road not far from the city centre has been closed to motorised traffic. Joshi describes a scene of pedestrians strolling comfortably along the road, yoga groups exercising, children on bicycles and others sitting and drawing patterns on the tarmac in a shared festival of leisure. More than 3,000 individuals look forward to this weekly liberating bonanza with its neighbourly festival atmosphere. The initiative is supported by the local administration and by the police, and has even found favour with many car drivers who acknowledge that they too have become frustrated with the levels of congestion and pollution that characterise Mubai’s streets. This approach to reclaiming the streets has been closely watched by the authorities in other Indian cities with Gurgaon, Ahmedabad and Bhopal already experimenting with similar projects. It is proposed that Hyderabad, Pune and Bangalore may soon follow suit. If this is true then I certainly look forward to hiring a bicycle and riding the quiet streets of Bangalore – something which I have never really contemplated doing!
Of course, simply addressing this issue for a few hours on a Sunday morning does not greatly ease the situation of the wheelchair user, the mother with her pushchair or the pedestrian who may be uneasy on their feet. But it is at least a step in the right direction. Some of my friends in India recall wistfully the days when Bangalore with its broad boulevards and tree lined avenues was known as “the garden city”. They tell me of the pleasure of their morning perambulation to work in clean air and relative peace. Today these same friends fight a daily battle through the ever increasing traffic in order to make slow progress a few miles to their places of employment. Perhaps the Equal Streets Movement could become the start of a larger protest. As people realise that walking can be a pleasure, and that those who are less ambulant also have a right to get around the city, their human decency may lead them to demand a humanisation of the streets of Bangalore that makes the metropolis accessible for everyone.