On Gandhi Jayanti 2019, a group of 50 people, 35 of them Adivasis from different parts of India, set out on what they called a ‘World Peace March’ – the plan was to walk all the way to Geneva, crossing seas by flight and getting permission to cross international borders on foot. They started from the Gandhi Samadhi in New Delhi on October 2, 2019, and expected that they would arrive in Geneva by January 30, 2021, walking about 35 km each day and covering about 11,000 km, through India, Pakistan, Iran, Armenia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Italy and Switzerland.
However, things did not work according to plan. The walkers did 2,000 km in India from New Delhi on October 2, 2019 to Wardha, where they reached on January 30, 2020. The foot march was re-tracked, with some people marching through Iran and some in Armenia in February 2020, but as the coronavirus spread, it was stopped after 360 km in Armenia.
Vishwamitra Yogesh, 63, from Pune was among the walkers. “Getting into Pakistan for those of us from India was hard, so some of us flew out to Iran and then joined the group of international walkers, including Jagat Basnet from Nepal, who walked through Pakistan. We then went across Iran and into Armenia. Seeing the world go into lockdown, we decided against continuing and returned from there.”
Yogesh said local people would join the walkers all along the route, for different lengths of time. So although only a small group of 50 had gone from India, all along the way, there would usually be around 150 people walking together. “People are friendly – we usually don’t need to carry any money or essentials, and can get by with whatever kind people offer along the way. I’ve done a walk in South Africa too, in 2018, and even then, I depended on the kindness of strangers.”
Yogesh, who gave up his corporate job to be a wellness coach, said of his South Africa walk in 2018, “The idea was to go without bothering about expenses. I have done walks without spending much money. People have hosted us along the way, and this helps in fostering connections and keeping the spirits of walkers high.”
Gandhi, whose 150th birth anniversary the nation celebrated in 2019, was a renowned walker. Eighty-three-year-old Manuel D’Mello remembers the time he saw Gandhi in Bombay, now Mumbai. His cousins told him Gandhi would be arriving, and the boys hustled to get to the spot. It was 1944; as a boy of seven, when his cousins pointed to Gandhi, D’Mello remembers wondering what great man could roam about without a shirt. “Was that man with no shirt really the great leader?” he wondered.
The group of walkers who set out for Geneva was united by their love for Gandhi and their desire to mark his 150th anniversary doing what he did best – marching to resist injustice, and for peace.
Among those who planned this way of marking Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary is Rajagopal PV of Kerala, now in his 70s. In the 1970s, Rajagopal, who worked with the Gandhi Peace Foundation in New Delhi, was instrumental in engaging with the dacoits of the Chambal ravine in Madhya Pradesh and getting over 500 of them to surrender. As part of his negotiations with the government, he had ensured that none of them would be given the death sentence; those surrendering then agreed to submit themselves to the course of law. He is now part of Jai Jagat, a movement for fostering peace and non-violence, striving to awaken people to a “sense of their own power”.
It is pertinent to note that while this group plans walking expeditions around the world, there is in the city of Pune a concerted attempt to make walking an enjoyable, safe experience even for those only walking within the city. Pune has had a pedestrian policy since 2016. After the lockdown in March 2020 to prevent spread of the coronavirus, as thousands of people set out on foot over hundreds of kilometres to get to their rural homes from their workplaces in cities, news reports too briefly dwelt on the problems of pedestrians.
The “Right to Walk” conference was held by NGO Parisar in Pune in February, just ahead of the lockdown. It was attended by representatives from across the country. “Theoretical discussions on the form of the city and its impact on walkability were followed by investigations into the connections between walking, the built environment and health. We have a representative of the Street Vendors Union talking about resolving the conflict between vendors and walkers; a professor expressing the angst of people with disabilities while negotiating unforgiving city streets,” a report of that seminar states.
Delhi-based researcher Samprati Pani, who made a presentation at the conference in Pune used case studies of walkers in the national capital, many walking without a specific aim. Walking could be meditative, it could help make acquaintances of strangers and create shared spaces of freedom and security, she explained. The farmers from other parts of India now flooding into the national capital, of course, have a very different experience of walking in Delhi.
Rosamma Thomas is an independent journalist