pedestrians

 Many parts of the world observed today, September 22, as the international  car-free day, a day for freedom and safety for pedestrians. The United Nations  has supported   priority for pedestrians. But the Indian government  is  busy encouraging cars, it has just announced  a productivity  linked  incentive (PLI) scheme to  subsidise  the industry to the tune of thousands of crores of rupees.

The Indian ruling establishment remains  utterly contemptuous of  the needs of pedestrians and is   denying adequate funds for  creating a  dignified walking environment.

But it is so concerned about the  exit of  three big U.S.  vehicle manufacturers  General Motors, Harley  Davidson and the most recent  Ford.  They had to wind up due to their  own bad planning, design, failure to understand the Indian market. But our Prime Prime Minister even talked  with former U.S. president Donald Trump  to help  Harley. Our ruling class does not care for  pedestrians who pay a heavy price for  the priority to cars. It  means  thousands of  ordinary people are daily  slaughtered on roads, injured, reduced to mental and physical wrecks as victims of traffic

Nothing shows the anti people, anti democratic   character of the Indian state  than the street.  You don’t have to go far, merely stand on  the road anywhere and watch  the traffic. It is all oriented towards the motor car and against  pedestrians. Yet, our blood does not boil. Part of the reason is many activists, even on the Left of the political spectrum,  are so addicted to the motor car, and many others to the motor cycle or scooter.

September 15 marked  the  Engineers Day in India, it is  observed to mark the birthday of our foremost  civil engineer Sir Visveswarayya.  Sorry  to say  but the  record of the  civil engineering profession  in  road building   is shamefully unprofessional, as experts have pointed out.Most engineers design  roads for cars, not pedestrians..Besides, there seems to be nothing civil about  civil engineering  when it comes to the  need  the  for good behaviour towards society.

Technological advance  in building  construction  is geared towards profit maximisation not  impact on society. It has only increased noise and torture.    During the recent controversy over  central vista project, I saw pictures of construction  workers  working on scaffolding in dangerous conditions  of some fifty years ago. . Not one bit of  improvement in conditions since then. I see this daily   around my house. In fact, work is more hazardous now as workers work at great heights without any protection.  The  municipal administration and others steeped in corruption from head to foot do not seem to care at all. Sure, there are exceptions and not all are to be condemned.

Some people seem to think I have been needlessly harsh on civil engineers. For their benefit I  cite a paragraph from  a  lecture given by respected structural engineer Alpa Sheth  in Mumbai two years ago which I attended. She suspects that BMC-empanelled structural engineers do not have any technical expertise or experience in bridge engineering and, in fact, have not even read the Bridge Inspector’s manual published by the Indian Road Congress (IRC). None of these auditors ever undergo a bridge maintenance or audit course, nor are they familiar with IRC codes/circulars on bridge maintenance. She put forward a thought-provoking question: “How can we entrust the important work of inspecting, maintaining and repairing the bridge to apparently unqualified local labourers and their supervisors?”

Most of the speech was a severe indictment of the profession. Unfortunately, there is so little  self criticism in our architecture and engineering  professions, though they have big organisations, that any criticism  comes to us as a surprise.

An ordinary reader of  a newspaper would  not be surprised at all because  day in and day out the media exposes to  appalling  quality of  our roads, bridges and  buildings. People are disgusted.  Alpa’s lecture was organized by Sucheta Dalal, noted financial journalist, famous for exposing frauds.

Interestingly, Mr Shirish Patel,  our well known and perhaps the senior most of our structural engineers, wrote a critical article on the profession a few yeas ago in EPW.

Our public works minister Nitin Gadkari is  obsessed with highways and always talks  in thousands of crores how they are being spent  on highways. If only he paid as much attention to the needs of pedestrians  and need to build footpaths.

  It is encouraging to find that  Mr Shirish Patel, our senior most planner, has strongly recommended this  book promoting public transport. It is by  Judith Dellheim and Jason Prince, editors, , “Free Public Transit – And why we don’t pay to ride Elevators”.

In that book a case has been made for free public transit as a way of making a city more humane as well as boosting its economy. The costs of transport of course have to be recovered and by free public transit we mean that the travelling public is not charged a fare for their journeys. Instead the cost is met by the property and business owners who are the ultimate beneficiaries of commuting customers and workers, through taxation, congestion pricing, or other appropriate measures.

If restaurants and shops want customers, isn’t it in their interest to make it easier for people to reach them?

And if motorists want clearer roads, surely they should be ready to pay a tax to  have more buses on roads .

The book is also favourably reviewed, incidentally, in Monthly Review, the respected journal.

There was a big furore in the media recently when  a new flyover opened by  chief minister  Uddhav Thackeray  on August 1  is found to be so defective  it has had to be closed for repairs after the death of a commuter. But no one cares when no footpaths are built.

If only one uses a little common sense we would find that  real signs of decay are right there in front of us. Look carefully at BEST buses and one would find  the route numbers on some of them are written in chalk.

So shameful is  the treatment of public transport in Mumbai, in some respects it is worse than Bihar was fifty years ago.

There also seems to be a very serious lack of talent when it comes to  making appointments   for  top posts in urban and public transport governance.

It is amusing to find this. It is no reflection on Mr  Surenddra Kumar Bagade, who was till recently the general manager of BEST in Mumbai. But  he is now a joint secretary in the  housing and urban affairs department which oversees the country’s   public transport from the corridors in Delhi. So, it is the top most position  in this sector.

But the daily setbacks being imposed  on our public transport by government and municipal policies do  not make news at all. MSRTC,  the pioneer in  state bus transport in the country, is in a pathetic condition, it is not able  pay wages to staff.

And our  princely  Scindia, minister for civil, aviation, has the gall to talk of democratizing   air travel, when common people are being humiliated daily  with deteriorating  conditions of  road and rail transport.

And see the double standards. It is now almost impossible  for  people to ride the  suburban trains in Mumbai  due to severe restrictions  on grounds of  Covid.  So the whole burden is falling on BEST buses and these are overcrowded. Are  passengers there not susceptible to Covid ?

Road transport  in Mumbai   is now a disgrace, worse than in backward states. Look at the scene   outside the  Bandra railway station from a suburb, once known as the   queen of suburbs. On both sides, east and west,  bus travel is a scandal. Crores of rupees  are being spent on redesigning the  transport arrangements  on the Western sides but due to faulty  management   things are now much worse than before. No one seems accountable.

The civic corporation in Mumbai  began last  month  online public hearing on how to meet the challenge of climate change. Looks well intended with Mr Aditya Thackeray  taking the initiative. But in practice it looks ridiculous considering the outrageously pro car lobby  policies being purused by the authorities.

One of the most foolish endeavours is  hiring a number of youngsters  trained in  urban planning and architecture  and spending lakhs  on extending   the car parking infrastructure when the civilized world is reducing  car parking  facilities.

A big study is being carried out  to find area wise car parking needs. If only  the authorities had  the common sense to  first  examine the needs of  walking and  bus and train transport for common people.  By not carrying out any such study of  common people’s needs and concentrating on  car users, the civic body is  showing extreme contempt for common people.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book   making a case for improving public transpor


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