A glance at the data on accidental deaths in India indicates that road accidents account for 35% of all accidental deaths. In comparison to other leading causes, this is an overwhelmingly large proportion. The issue of mobility on roads is thus a major public health concern. Newspapers frequently run alarming headlines like, “15 road accident deaths in India every hour!” Road mobility in this light is an everyday hazard in every sense of the term. This should provoke a serious re-thinking of road infrastructure. The lack of policies to regulate the number of vehicles on the road, to implement separate lanes for different categories of vehicles and the absence of usable footpaths together result in our roads turning into battle fields for heavy vehicles, a massive fleet of private cars or two-wheelers and pedestrians fighting for space.. basically a recipe for disaster.
Besides the obvious concern about road accidents, there are several other issues related to safety on roads, which are of critical importance. Roads are indisputably public spaces. Any analysis of mobility for different groups of people highlights the fact that the access to these public spaces differ are widely based on gender, class, location, physical fitness and other conditions of individual users. Take the broad category of women for example. Women doing white-collar jobs with MNCs have to work for long hours. For them, commuting at night can be traumatising and hazardous. Prevalent attitudes towards women also make our roads highly unsafe for women at night. Further, women doing informal jobs or travelling to meet survival needs are confronted by greater obstacles. The lack of public transport in low income localities in cities compels these women to walk long distances. Their mobility at night gets severely restricted. The panel discussion on mobility had a two-pronged agenda; firstly, to throw light on the present situation of mobility on city roads with reference to existing data and secondly, to deliberate on future courses of research and action to improve this situation.
II. The Panel:
Vijayendra or Viju, the moderator for this discussion, is truly an ardent walker. He says, “I walked all my life. I use only public transport and have never taken a driving licence.”
Girish Agrawal works at IIT-Delhi. By training he is a lawyer and civil engineer, but of late he has been working mostly on issues of transportation safety. He tries to answer two major questions through his work. One, what or who is our infrastructure designed for? Two, what are the various policies that govern transportation in our cities?
Kanthimathi Kannan the founder president of The Right to Walk Foundation in Hyderabad is chiefly concerned with issues faced by pedestrians and insists that “walking is a choice.” She’s a vociferous critic of the indifference of governments and motorists alike, to the rights of pedestrians.
Dhiraj Kaveri is a physiotherapist by training and he initially worked on rehabilitating patients to fitness. In the course of his work, he realized that it is more important to motivate people to stay fit, by being mobile. He now works as a health promoter, focusing on the public health aspects of fitness and encouraging walking or cycling over the use of motor vehicles.
1. The Biases in Road Design
Girish Agrawal began his talk by deconstructing the policies regarding road transport in India. He pointed to the fact that most of the new infrastructure being developed on Indian roads – like fly-overs and express-ways – privileged one particular mode of transport; private cars. From transport policies, he then turned our attention to policies regarding transport safety and their complete inadequacy, even non-existence in many cases. After a quick run-through of the data on deaths caused by road accidents in India he highlighted that as opposed to the current negligence towards road accidents, they should be a high priority on the national public health agenda. However, the neglect continues and instead of addressing the causes of road accidents, the Ministry of Urban Development continues to extend highway networks.
Professor Agrawal stressed the need for a greater emphasis on public transport and pedestrian infrastructure to ensure transport safety in the country. In a situation where the concerned ministries are apathetic, he suggests that it might be useful to turn to legal instruments. He then brought out certain examples of how courts have succeeded or failed to ensure transportation safety. In the hearing for a recent PIL regarding road safety filed by Common Cause, the Supreme Court in fact backtracked on earlier interventions and stated that road safety is the exclusive domain of the legislative and executive wings of the government. Fortunately a few High Courts in the country have been pro-active in ensuring road safety. For example, the functioning of roads in Mumbai are carried out in the oversight of the Bombay High Court. Although this initiative was sparked by an accident involving a high Court justice, it sets a useful precedent.
2. Perceived & Real Barriers to Mobility
Dhiraj Kaveri, a health promoter, suggested that in addition to policies, there also needs to be significant individual initiative to move away from private cars. He insists that individuals use private vehicles in several situations where they could walk or cycle instead due to the onset of sedentary lifestyles. As a physiotherapist concerned about public health, Dhiraj’s mission is to encourage people to embrace walking and cycling in order to develop an active lifestyle and to stay fit. He believes that a positive externality of this lifestyle and behavioural change might be that policy-makers will pay greater attention to pedestrian infrastructure.
Dhiraj then invited Vijaya to share her experiences of commuting in the city as a working woman. Vijaya pointed out that while she has the luxury of a company car to commute to and from work, she is highly constrained when it comes to travelling for other purposes. Through examples she pointed out how even public transport presents barriers to women commuters. She disagreed with Dhiraj’s point that it is up to individuals to take the initiative to walk. She indicated that there were major short-comings in the existing infrastructure for pedestrians, especially women that deter one from walking.
3. We Are Not Pedestrians
In a polemical address, Kanthimathi Kannan chastised policy-makers and the middle-class for their callousness towards the state of pedestrian infrastructure. She argued that the major cause for this deplorable state of footpaths and public transport is that our elite policy-makers do not use either of them. Miss Kannan proposed that the Right to Walk be recognized as a fundamental right. She strongly advocated that the government utilize JNNURM funds not just to build flyovers, but also to make Hyderabad a walkable city. She believes that the initiative would never come from the authorities and that it is up to citizens to make these demands. Her bottom line was that the actual pedestrians of the city were the poor. She said that in Hyderabad, “those who walk have no choice and those who have the choice would not walk.”