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In One Mumbai Suburb, Pedestrians Say Enough Is Enough – An Interview with Krishnaraj Rao (Part 1)

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Here Pedestrians hold back traffic after painting a sidewalk on the street. Photo from Friendlyghost.

Krishnaraj Rao lives in Borivli, a suburb of Mumbai known for its famous Sanjay Gandhi National Park, and, more recently, its residents who have taken to the streets demanding that pedestrians be treated with respect. Along with Mr. Santosh Jangam, a bookseller turned activist, Mr. Rao is the head of a movement called Sahasi Padayatri which is leading a grassroots campaign on behalf of pedestrian rights in Mumbai. Through this movement he has been engaged in a variety of initiatives and non-violent agitations to improve conditions for pedestrians; he has demarcated lanes for pedestrians on streets where pedestrians compete with buses, cars and motorcycles due to the lack of walkable footpaths and he has dumped rubbish blocking pedestrian areas at the steps of local government office buildings to raise awareness of the obstacles facing pedestrians. This weekend I had the chance to correspond with him by email. Below is the interview.

How have cars and motorbikes changed Mumbai’s streets?

Cars and motorbikes – especially the former – represent the prevalence of speed, brute force and money power in our society. They represent a constant threat to those who don’t have these vehicles, and subtly divide people into haves and have-nots. By virtue of being seated in an automobile, one feels one has a divine right to make hundreds of other people scurry out of his way as he approaches. I feel this mentality needs to be curbed for the good of society.

At what point did you realize that pedestrians were being forced off the roads? Has it been a long process, or has it happened rapidly?

Personally, realization of this fact dawned only in the past year, when, because of my concern about climate change, I began increasingly to leave my car parked and go out walking or using public transport.

But I do realize that this erosion of the pedestrians’ right to walk safely has been gradual over the past two decades. I recognize now that the motorist’s ability to honk a blaring horn and to subtly threaten to run down someone who obstructs him has skewed the balance. The pedestrian, by contrast, endlessly adjusts and modifies his path, peacefully yields the centre of the road to moving vehicles and the roadside to parked vehicles etc. The pedestrian rarely protests – and this has been his undoing.

Much of your activities revolve around something called a Satyagraha. Since a lot of our audience doesn’t speak Hindi, could you provide a brief explanation of what Satyagraha means?

At a mundane level, Satyagraha may be defined as a peaceful, non-violent way of agitating against a faulty system, in order to demand a change in the system. Please note, a Satyagraha is never against a person or group of persons; it is only against faulty systems and continuing injustices.

It is necessary for such agitation to be easy for people to directly relate to, and also for the agitation to inflict some hardships on those who agitate. A key part of the non-violent approach is to avoid evoking negative emotions such as fear and anger in those against whom the agitation is aimed.

At a philosophical level, Satyagraha means SATYA + AGRAHA, which roughly translates as “Truth Force” or “Truth Command”. Indians believe in the saying that “Truth shall Prevail” (Satyam Eva Jayate) in a rather literal way. We believe that the Truth, if clearly stated without any personal agendas, has a force on the human psyche that exceeds the force of threat and violence.

Civil disobedience is closely allied with Satyagraha – the two terms mean almost the same thing. Civil disobedience means inciting civilians to act peacefully against an authority that is on the side of wrongdoing. Setting off a civil disobedience movement involves inciting citizens to peacefully but firmly disobey the laws that hold them prisoners to wrongdoing, and strengthening their self-confidence by raising the pitch of their defiance of authority.

Needless to say, Satyagraha and civil disobedience call for great strength of character, self-restraint and inherent fearlessness.

Ok, so now that we know what a Satyagraha is, could you tell us a little about some of the initiatives you are involved in and what types of things you would like to see happen on India’s streets with respect to pedestrians?

The first thing we are doing is called a Pedestrian Satyagraha: This method of agitation consists of a large number of citizens forming a half-kilometre long human chain at the road centre with a wide strip of khadi cloth, while a 6-foot lane is demarcated with white paint along this human chain. This, accompanied with picketing and distribution of pamphlets, forms our “Pedestrian Satyagraha”. (See photo above)

The second thing we are doing is a Debris Satyagraha: The municipal corporation has no mechanism for clearing stony debris and left-over concrete pipe sections from roadsides, and therefore it has not done so for years and even decades! This rubble and stony debris lying around from years of construction work degrades the quality of roads, pavements and our city as a whole. It hinders pedestrians and vehicular traffic, endangers motorcyclists and assists encroachers and anti-social elements. Therefore Sahasi Padyatri has made it a point to lift the stony debris, and peacefully deposit it in front of the gates of city offices with placards urging the city to clear the debris. We believe that by doing so, we are doing half the job of the city, that is, lifting debris from the road. Therefore, the city is required to do only the other half of the work by disposing of it.

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Residents pick up an old pipe, which had been blocking pedestrian space. Photo from Friendlyghost

The third thing we are doing is called a Letter Satyagraha: We continue to inundate the authorities with large numbers of letters and signatures by selling letters and collecting signatures on trains and in public places. All these letters – written in four languages, English, Hindi, Marathi and Gujarati – ask for six feet of road space exclusively for pedestrians.

Since the 17th of March, we have held eight Satyagrahas of the first two kinds – one at Bombay Central, four in Bandra and three in Borivli. Our last Satyagraha was the Debris Satyagraha held at Bombay Central on Sunday, April 20th.

Read the rest of the interview here

(Special thanks to Madhav Pai for arranging this interview.)