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Erosion Of Democracy Is Most Visible On Roads

By Vidyadhar Date

11 November, 2015

In some ways India is nearly 150 years behind England in terms of democracy. There was a hue and cry in England in the 1860s when the authorities locked Hyde Park for a day to prevent assembly of thousands of people demanding the right to vote.

John Stuart Mill, the noted exponent of liberty, criticized in Parliament the locking of the most public of spaces.

But in Mumbai the gate of Azad Maidan on the side of the headquarters of the municipal corporation is literally locked for several years now to prevent protesters.

Even access for walking is denied. In this light the annual international urban mobility conference organized by the Central government in Delhi looks so futile. This year the conference beginning on November 24 has `smart mobility solution` as a topic in the first session on the first day. A good idea but it looks entirely ridiculous if one looks at the situation on the ground. People are denied basic facilities for walking . It is crystal clear that the government is the problem, not the people.

One does not have to go far to notice the erosion of democracy in India. It is glaringly visible on streets all over as the whole streetscape is dominated by private vehicles while human beings are treated with the utmost contempt all the while.

One needs basic facilities, not the so called smart solutions. The BEST bus undertaking, once a pioneer in urban transport in the country, is being subverted from inside by official policies, and is in a sad state of neglect.

The number of passengers per day has fallen from 45 lakhs to 30 lakh in the last 10 years even despite a big increase in population. This is because of poor services.

The government officials talk of smart transport and in reality BEST cannot even properly display its route name and number with the electronic system failing miserably and no effort made to use the manual system properly.

The BEST bus stops are atrociously designed and are meant to serve advertisers, not passengers. The focus seems to be to increase revenue while reducing passenger amenities. TV sets meant for advertisements in buses are placed above the seats of senior citizens in the most hazardous way.

Look at this ironic scene visible outside Bandra west railway station in an upmarket suburb. There is a big queue for auto rickshaws and a much smaller one for BEST buses. Also, the unofficial share auto rickshaw scheme on the other side takes away a lot of business from BEST buses as the police and BEST officials look the other way. There is simply no political will and this has been admitted at the Delhi conferences in the past by Mr Jaipal Reddy, former urban development minister, and Mr Venkaiah Naidu, the present minister.

Active at the the conference are lobbies offering expensive technological solutions when urban transport needs simple steps that will cost little or no money at all. Mr Todd Litman, a prominent expert in public transport, is scheduled to speak at the conference on car parking. One hopes he gets to know about the huge fraud being committed in the name of buiding multi-storeyed car parks in urban areas. Developers make profits of hundreds of crores through special concessions while the car parks are not used at all as motorists want free parking on roads. So, it is a lose-lose situation for the people and a win win situation for the corrupt in the government.

Mumbai municipal commissioner Ajoy Mehta’s announcement that footpaths will be freed of encroachments in a year looks on the face of it a positive step. But it could be very deceptive and anti-poor. A very false picture is often created that hawkers are obstructing pedestrians. This is only partly true. Actually, there would be no conflict at all if the footpaths are widened so that both hawkers and pedestrians can co-exist. The plain fact is ordinary people DO need hawkers. This could well be true for any Indian city.

The real deception lies here. The BMC is simply not doing its basic duty of providing footpaths to citizens. The commissioner should take the trouble just to take a look at the road between the corporation’s headquarters and the Times of India building. This is called the Mahanagarpalika sabha road underlining its status. Yet, even here the basic amenity of footpath is not provided.This is clearly a deliberate breaking of rules because all the space is taken up by cars of the BMC and the Times of India. Similarly, there is no footpath on the other side of the Times of India building going towards Azad Maidan police station and then the police headquartes.

So a most criminal, anti-people dereliction of duty is taking place right in the vicinity of the BMC building. Some time ago, the Times of India wanted to park some of its vehicles on the ground of the adjacent Anjuman-i-Islam school which would have caused so much inconvenience to thousands of students there. But the then president and former minister Ishaq Jamkhanwala put his foot down.

The irony is that the Times of India has enthusiastically taken to banning cars from areas like Linking Road in Bandra on selective days. This looks a very nice step till you look closer. This benefits mainly upper class revelers who can take to the streets with full abandon on Sunday mornings when cars are prohibited with strict enforcement from the traffic police. But this did not last long due to resistance of local citizens and in any case the automobile lobby does not take kindly to such exercises and the police too did not like doing such a job.

And if the BMC is really serious about pedestrians, how come there is no footpath on the elite road where the municipal commissioner lives near Peddar Road ?

The demand to ban hawkers from Linking Road in Bandra looks attractive to upper class citizens but Linking Road is a major shopping attraction precisely because of the hawkers. The real scandal is the colossal misuse and waste of urban space because of the very fancy shops selling very expensive goods. Even a casual look would convince anyone that these fancy , dazzling bright, shining shops are almost empty and therefore of no or real use to citizens. A top figure in the retail industry told me that these shops are more of vanity statements of big international brands declaring their presence in an area with very high visibility of the upper class. The scandal is that ordinary people have to jostle for space to buy essentials while the parasitical class has so much hideously excess space. And many of these shops and malls break several rules.

But then what kind of governance can one expect when the former chief secretary of the Maharashtra government refuses to vacate his official residence after retirement and a high civic official refuses to pay rent for an official bungalow which he retains for two years after his transfer. The civic official said his college going daughter needed the 6,000 sq ft. bungalow ( in the greenest part of Mumbai ) for her studies. Are these worthies aware that most students in Mumbai have no space to study ? They need not have to go far. Near Mantralaya there is the Cooperage Park where an area with chairs and tables is reserved for students to study. I have seen another such space reserved in a park in the Cuffe Parade area. It is always full of students.

Coming back to the theme of walking, some activists made a good point in the wake of the killing of Govind Pansare during his morning walk in Kolhapur earlier this year. They said we should all take walks and defy the vandals to kill us. That is fine. But even otherwise, the Left should promote walking as a way of reclaiming the street from the dominance of the automobile and an oppressive urban form. Certeu , Lefebvre and other thinkers of urban issues have asserted that walking can be a very defining act of urban resistance. In England rambling in the countryside and walking in urban areas were important ways of assertion of the working class .

And why does the BMC have to wait for a year to provide some relief for pedestrians ?. Here is one major hurdle which the pedestrians face and it is caused by illegal intrusions on footpaths by buildings, mostly luxury buildings. They build slopes on footpaths for the convenience of motor cars but this makes it virtually impossible for a pedestrian to walk and balance oneself on this stretch. A little engineering and the problem can be solved. The BMC can easily ask the buildings to take the necessary steps. It will cost the BMC nothing while providing relief to pedestrians. The question is whether the largely corrupt staff in the BMC has the willingness to serve the common people and to do their basic duty of enforcing norms ?

Some of our politicians periodically indulge in stunts of travelling in trains. People are now tired of such gimmicks . Let the politicians and yes officials start walking on the roads instead to experience the hardships of pedestrians.

(Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of the book Traffic in the era of climate change. Walking, cycling, public transport need priority).


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