Reclaiming the streets.

Stuck again in the traffic of Bangalore. This journey of less than 5 miles took over an hour. I could have walked it just as quickly - had their been pavements to safely do so!

Stuck again in the traffic of Bangalore. This journey of less than 5 miles took over an hour. I could have walked it just as quickly – had there been pavements to safely do so!

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.

The Times of India published this cartoon which illustrates the same stretch of road on Sunday mornings and mid-week.

The Times of India published this cartoon which illustrates the same stretch of road on Sunday mornings and mid-week.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

The cavalry about to charge. If Usain Bolt were to sprint, he might just make it across the road!

The cavalry about to charge. If Usain Bolt were to sprint, he might just make it across the road!

I was once crossing a chaotic main road in central Bangalore —. No, let me start again. Like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an out of control auto rickshaw, I was once dodging between cars, motorcycles, buses and bikes in a desperate effort to reach my destination, a mere twenty yards away across a tributary of Mahatma Gandhi Road in Bangalore. I was in the company of an elderly sage, a scholar and philosopher of international standing, one who is held in great esteem as an acknowledge authority on the peoples of the Himalaya. He turned to me as we sidestepped yet another vehicle, whose driver was seemingly oblivious or at least indifferent, to our panic, and calmly intoned, “Richard my friend, I always feel closer to God when crossing the roads of Bangalore!” At that precise moment, being intent on survival, and focused upon negotiating a safe passage to my intended goal, which appeared to be getting no closer, I gave little attention to my companion’s statement. However, having arrived gratefully intact on the relative safe haven of the pavement that was our objective, I heaved a sigh of relief and felt that I understood exactly what he meant. In Bangalore there are two kinds of pedestrian – the quick and the dead!

Negotiating the traffic of Bangalore requires a certain fatalistic fortitude on behalf of all walkers. This is no place for the faint-hearted or those of a nervous disposition. Strangers to the city are easily identified. They are the ones who hover fitfully at the road side, shuffling back and forth with a hundred false starts, whilst seasoned campaigners stride confidently into the flow with an air of defiance, cocking a snook at the would be assassins by whom they are surrounded. Some, with what must surely be a false belief, hold up a hand to the on-rushing masses, indicating that they have a right of way and others should give way. I tried this method once, (only once) and found myself facing a sneering motorcyclist who with his three infant passengers simply brushed me scornfully aside. Everyone must find their own strategy in order to make progress, and clearly this was one that was not going to work for me!

Personally, having become more experienced in this crazy game of Bangalore Roulette over the years, it is still the zone in the middle of the highway that gives me the greatest anxiety. Having reached the mid-point, often with a sense of false hope, there is clearly no going back. But to be stranded in this no man’s land for more than a few seconds can result in palpitations, as the gladiators of Bangalore weave and sidestep around what they clearly see as an inconvenient obstacle to their passage.

One early morning last week I discovered a new tactic that enabled me to make progress at a greater rate than is normally the case on the city’s roads. Noticing two cows, gently ambling but with clear intent of making their way across the road near Madhevan Park, I placed myself strategically between them and thus adopted a bovine shield of assured protection from one point to another. A cowardly approach I hear you say, and indeed this may well be true, but at least I live to tell the tale. Unfortunately, whilst cows in Bangalore are plentiful, it is rare that we seek the same destination and they appear somewhat reluctant to accompany me for more than an occasional stroll. Thinking about this, I suppose it would be rather inconvenient to have to travel often, accompanied by even a single cow.

All of this comes to mind as I reflect upon a game played by children, and witnessed by my colleague Johnson and myself a few days ago. Standing at the gates of Little Lilly’s, (No, this is not a bar in an old black and white cowboy movie, but the name of the accommodation where we stay in Jayanagar) one evening we witnessed three children, the eldest of whom may have been eight years old and the youngest certainly no more than four, playing a game of “quickest across the road”. Here at home we would describe this activity as “playing chicken” a game best avoided if one wants a long and healthy life. These erstwhile competitors starting together at the kerbside, each weaved their way between the melee of traffic, racing to get to the other side. Mission accomplished, laughing and shouting their triumph above the din of the honking horns, they turned around and repeated the activity in the opposite direction. Watching this kamikaze spectacle in horror, I could hardly believe that these young streetwise urchins were gaining pleasure from such a treacherous activity. Though I must confess that whilst being horrified, I found myself in awe of their skill and confidence in having mastered this most difficult terrain.

Clearly these youngsters have undergone an informal education that hopefully enables them to make judgements and to have a confidence that continues to elude me, as I make my pathetic forays into the manic streets of Bangalore. If ever there was an indication of the significance of being familiar with the learning environment in which we operate, it was to be seen here watching these children. These autodidacts of the streets have mastered an art in a few short years that many will gain only after a lifetime of apprehensive study. I only hope they live to reach an age when they might reflect upon how they learned to survive so proficiently on the streets of the city. If only I had a smattering of Kannada I could have asked them for some basic instruction in becoming a proficient pedestrian in the metropolitan madness of Bangalore.

Joke told to me by a ten year old in a school in Northampton: Why did the chicken cross the road, roll in the mud and cross the road again? Because he was a dirty double-crosser!