India’s constitution guarantees every citizen a fundamental right to move freely throughout the country. Today, this right is violated in most cities, as pedestrian infrastructure has taken a backseat in the planning of Indian cities. Traditional Indian cities with compact development, mixed-use areas, and walkable streets are being dismantled and redeveloped to make way for sprawling cities and unending roads that cater to private automobiles. Policy recommendations and design directives borrowed from automobile dependent, developed nations are changing the form, structure, and context of modern Indian cities. Pedestrians are losing space on roads and on-street parking often takes precedent over pedestrian infrastructure like paved sidewalks.
In order to reverse these trends and uphold the constitutional right of every Indian citizen to unimpeded, safe mobility, the country needs a detailed document outlining pedestrian rights and how to enforce them.
Walking: An essential component of Indian cities
In urban India, 28% of all trips are made on foot and walking has the highest share of any other mode of transport. Thus, the absence of constitutional rights for pedestrians disenfranchises large sections of the population for whom walking is often the only option for mobility.
Walking in urban India currently requires tricky negotiation through a series of obstacles and impediments, which often necessitates risking one’s safety – or sometimes, one’s life. Pedestrian neglect in Indian cities is not just an issue of low prioritization and poor implementation of pedestrian amenities, but also a reflection of a larger systemic issue: the absence of a comprehensive set of legal rights and remedies for pedestrians in India. This situation is especially precarious for vulnerable groups like the elderly or children.
Limited legal protection for Indian pedestrians is inadequate
Legally, there are some avenues that offer protection to pedestrians, including the Motor Vehicles Act (1988); the Indian Penal Code (1860), which provides for the penalizing of rash driving by motorists who put pedestrians at risk; and the Rules of the Road Regulation (1989), which outlines the responsibilities of motorists with respect to pedestrians. Most recently, the National Road Safety and Traffic Management Board Bill (2010) mandates the Board to provide special requirements for women, children, senior citizens, disabled persons, and pedestrians relating to road safety and traffic management on national highways. While these laws provide some legal protection to people walking on streets, they are inadequate due to two major reasons:
- The regulations are framed as a set of suggested responsibilities, not requirements, for motorists.
- In the absence of defined rights for pedestrians, neither municipal authorities nor private motorists bear any legal responsibility for the environment that is generated by their actions.
Worldwide advocacy efforts for pedestrian rights
Across the world, the significance of developing better and safer pedestrian facilities is becoming well understood. The United Nations (UN) has designated 2011-2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety, with the goal of saving 5 million lives worldwide, and other organizations like the Zenani Mandela Foundation are campaigning for pedestrian and road safety to be included in the upcoming UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In Europe, the emphasis on road safety and developing a better pedestrian environment has been taken even further by the European Charter of Pedestrians’ Rights, which was adopted in 1988 by the European Parliament. An excellent example for countries like India, the Charter explicitly outlines rights of pedestrians in urban and village centers, including the right to live in a healthy environment, have access to amenities within walking or cycling distance, and the right to complete and unimpeded mobility.
Taking action: Pedestrian rights document needed to uphold fundamental rights
While defining the legal rights of Indian pedestrians in terms of the amenities and services each pedestrian is entitled to is important, an enforceable set of regulations for private motorists should also be enacted to help reduce conflict between pedestrians and motorized traffic. This would contribute to creating a safer environment surrounding city roads in India, especially through ensuring the safety of vulnerable groups such as children and the elderly. Since walking is something we all do, a document detailing the rights of pedestrians is needed to ensure the safety of pedestrians and reinforce the fundamental rights of all Indians to move freely throughout the territory of India.