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Q&A with Sujit Mahamulkar: Protecting Pedestrian Spaces in India

Poorly maintained pedestrian spaces are a national issue in India, but for the time being, the Hindustan Times campaign to restore sidewalks is focused on Mumbai. Photo by sleepinyourhat.

Upon receiving numerous complaints from readers on the state of pedestrian spaces in Mumbai, Hindustan Times started a campaign to raise awareness about the problem. The conflict between pedestrians and private vehicles in India is yet another example of how urban design practices must be better geared towards public well-being.

The learn more about the “Fight for Our Footpaths” campaign by the Hindustan Times, we spoke with Special Correspondent Sujit Mahamulkar, who has been covering the topic since early October 2011. In addition to this interview, you can read Mahamulkar’s coverage of the campaign here, here, and here.

What are some of the current problems with pedestrian space in India and what kind of dangers do these problems pose to road safety?

Problems that pedestrians face vary from one city to another. Indian metropolises like Mumbai and Delhi have footpaths that are wide enough, but they are mostly encroached by either hawkers or illegal slums, or they are dug up by underground utility agencies, for gas, telephone and internet, for repairs.

However, this is not a general case. There are few areas in Mumbai that have world-class footpaths, which are pedestrian-friendly and well-maintained by the local civic body.

Meanwhile, footpaths in Hyderabad (a city in Andhra Pradesh) are treated like orphans, where the state government builds them but there is no one to maintain them. Lack of proper pavements is a concern, as people are then forced to walk on the streets, causing road accidents.

What is the political process involved in building a pedestrian path?

Normally, pavements are built by the concerned state government or local civic bodies that are run by various political parties. Politicians and bureaucrats decide how much to spend on development work, like building footpaths or roads.

Most of the time contractors—backed by political parties and shielded by influenced politicians—get these contracts but fail to properly maintain the footpaths. Hence, even after spending a sizeable amount of money on building and maintaining footpaths, they are in bad shape.

How did the “Fight for Our Footpaths” campaign come about?

Hindustan Times is a very reader-friendly newspaper and the letters and feedback sent by the readers are taken seriously; efforts are made to address the concerns. The “Fight for Our Footpaths” campaign was chalked after several readers complained of poor pavements in their area. Complaints also came from those with physical disabilities and senior citizens. Reporters were then roped in and the concerns of our readers in ailing the pavements were researched. While we slammed the civic body for poor maintenance, we also highlighted areas where the footpaths were in good shape.

Where is the campaign taking place?

Though it is a national issue, the campaign is only focused on Mumbai city. The local civic body of Mumbai, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), has spent a hefty amount, over Rs 130 crore (US$25 million) in the last five years to build and maintain footpaths, but they are still a mess.

What are some of the actions the campaign will take?

The campaign will go on until the local body comes out with a long-term solution for the upkeep of footpaths. The civic body has not yet started taking serious action against illegal hawkers who trespass onto footpaths.

What do you hope the campaign will accomplish?

I personally feel that the campaign will be continued by the several people who are liked and supported in their wards, and who will ask the local administration to pay attention to pedestrian spaces.

The idea behind the campaign was to let readers know what was happening to their hard earned money that they paid as taxes.

Who else is involved in the campaign? Are there other organizations that work for the same cause?

There are few other non-governmental organizations and citizen groups that are working to improve the condition of roads and footpaths. Ms. Kanthimathi Kannan, a resident of the city of Hyderabad who runs an NGO called The Right 2 Walk Foundation was appalled at the now common sight of pedestrians of the city having to either walk on the road, at the risk of being run over by vehicles of varying shapes and sizes, or on garbage-filled pavements, or on pavements that double up as public urinals. Kannan decided to start a campaign to goad the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation (GHMC) and the police to take up the matter of pedestrian problems seriously and to do something to improve the condition of pavements around the city to make them pedestrian-friendly.

What has been done so far to protect pedestrians?

Several steps have been taken by the BMC, apart from starting a massive drive against hawkers who trespass footpaths, like clearing areas outside busy railway stations of hawkers. BMC has also assured that they will place the responsibility of maintaining footpaths on its engineers. They will assign an engineer to supervise the construction and maintaining of these footpaths.

What are some of the challenges and obstacles to providing adequate and protected space for pedestrians?

The major problem in Mumbai city is lack of space as the city is developing rapidly, and also a lack of political will to provide space for pedestrians. It seems that the local body is the least interested in improving the footpaths, instead of taking it on as a priority.

How can individuals and organizations participate or contribute to this program?

Not only NGOs but common people have gotten involved with this campaign. Hindustan Times has received lots of mail from its readers and reported on the problems that they are facing. They are contributing by forwarding information and photographs to us, which we then forward to authorities.

Is there anything else you would want us to know about the campaign?

I feel the problem is not related to administrative issues, but it is political in nature. There is a lack of political will to sort out this problem, as no political party wants to upset slum dwellers and also hawkers, who are their voters. If politicians decide they can do anything to change the city into an international city, they will do it.

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