The plight of pedestrians on Indian streets

But I am a little puzzled as to why it should take some sports event for a prominent politician to speak up on road behaviour, as it’s been blindingly obvious that road users and the authorities have been conspiring to make Indian roads an absolute nightmare for a very long time.

European pedestrians are very fortunate. They compete with less people for more space, sometimes having access to wide, smooth and obstacle-free pavements. There are laws that are enforced to prevent businesses from obstructing the pavements with advertising boards and parked vehicles from intruding. They are also very fortunate because vehicle users stop at red lights and crossings, drive on the correct side of the road and do not drive at pedestrians while blurting horns, with pedestrians running for their lives. Traffic rules are actually obeyed, police enforce the traffic laws and vehicles users shown at least a modicum of respect for the pedestrian.

‘Pavements’ in Indian towns may consist of paving stones (or gravel, or sand), interrupted by covered manholes that protrude vertically by at least ten centimetres. Or there are holes covered with a slab of concrete. Or the paving is so uneven that it will cause serious injury to anyone who stubs their toe and trips (probably into an uncovered manhole). Pavements are so cluttered with protruding manholes and advertising hoardings strategically placed to cause maximum inconvenience that the poor old pedestrian is often relegated to walk in the road.

Of course, this assumes that pavements exist in the first place. Very often, they don’t. Why walk on a nice pavement, when you can put yourself in danger of serious injury by walking in the road, adjacent to motorized vehicles of every description? It must save city authorities a lot of money by not having to provide superfluous things like decent pavements.

I have lost count of the amount of times that I’ve avoided serious injury by walking along the road in India. Having been forced onto the side of the road, there’s no guarantee on a one-way section that vehicles go only in one direction. I have learned to look in all directions as cars, bicycles and mopeds tend to appear from nowhere, driving on the wrong side of the road.

When I look at them after they have barely missed me, their attitude is that it’s all really my fault for being in the way. So, after having been forced into the road, I’m now being forced from the road. The pedestrian is an inconvenience to traffic and city planners alike.

Focus on revenue
It would of course help if traffic police actually attempted to control traffic. Traffic police are often out in force, quite often not enforcing traffic rules of course, but hassling drivers of two wheelers for some or other administrative misdemeanour in order to boost the coffers.

In 2006, more than one lakh people died and an estimated two lakh were seriously injured on India’s roads. That constitutes more deaths than anywhere else in the world and claims far more victims than communicable diseases like Aids, TB and malaria combined. And many of the fatalities are pedestrians who were merely trying to cross the road. The lives of the injured are devastated.

However, a number of pressure groups are currently involved in encouraging better road safety, and steps are afoot to create new road safety agencies at state and national level. Certain initiatives are also trying to ensure standardised training for drivers, many of whom do not even understand the meaning of road signs. How successful this will be is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, the less pavement space there is and as India’s traffic volume increases, the more people will continue to get pushed into increasingly crowded roads. And the more they are pushed to the middle of the road, the more likely it is that they risk being killed. Of course there is a simple solution to all of this — quite simply build more and more community devastating flyovers and wider roads with ever-diminishing pavement space and force people from venturing out on foot. Do away with the pedestrian altogether. It’s already happening.

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