Pedestrian blues

They vanish into cigarette kiosks, tea stalls and vegetable and fruit stalls.

You have heard of vanishing trees, vanishing tigers, vanishing natural resources, et al. But have you heard of vanishing pavements?

They often vanish into pan, cigarette kiosks, tea stalls, vegetable and fruit stalls, not to mention open eateries and hutments. In Mumbai, 30 per cent of its population lives on them. The city’s bus stops devour a significant portion of them. They are thus increasingly becoming an endangered species in Mumbai – may be in other metros too. If the present trend continues Mumbai’s pavements will become history. Where pavements exist, the problem is to keep them in good repair. And there lies the rub.Presently pavements in Mumbai serve several other purposes than walking -- sleeping, answering nature’s calls and so numerously on.

They are very accommodating. The needy always find lodgings there! I have once overheard a pavement dweller giving someone, may be his friend or relation, over cellphone the address of his dwelling. ‘Look, it is opposite the flyover that overlooks the shopping mall on the other side of the road,’ he was saying. ‘Come over and have your house set up here before someone else laps up the place,’ he said invitingly in words laced with urgency and caution! Alas, the wages of not addressing the housing needs of the poor is their seeking shelter at unbecoming places.

Do you know another feature of Mumbai’s pavements which haven’t yet yielded to man’s nest - read house - building instincts and entrepreneurial skills? They have the unique ability to swallow men and animals. Not kidding. The footpaths keep their mouths open as if they were giant monsters expectantly waiting for their prey.

 Animals are not expected to walk on the pavements.  However, they do because they lack civic sense! Thus occasionally, they pay for their folly either with dear lives or injuries to themselves by falling into these holes. But why should people whose legitimate right it is to walk on footpaths, well, only on footpaths, find themselves falling into manholes? 

When the scary, infamous 26/7 floods that inundated Mumbai, several deaths were caused by the uncapped manholes. Roads and footpaths were drowned in water, and people who were forced to wade through it found themselves being sucked into the gaping manholes. Civic officials passed the buck. They attributed the lack of manhole caps to increasing incidence of theft. Undoubtedly, for the thieves, unfastened manhole caps are too alluring to resist filching.

Even if you are a stickler for road discipline and scruple to walk on the roads, the ill-maintained sidewalks often force you to abandon them and use the former. So in Mumbai, the roads are becoming pedestrian walkways, slowly but surely.  And it is difficult to see the vehicles for pedestrians. The roads are thus overwhelmed with pedestrians. And accidents happen not because vehicles hit the pedestrians. It is the other way round – pedestrians hit the vehicles.

After a visit to Thiruvananthapuram in the late fifties, British author Arthur Koestler wrote in his book, The Lotus and the Robot, ‘Trivandrum looked like the suburb of a non-existent city.’ Mumbai’s roads, to paraphrase Koestler, look like pavements of nonexistent roads!

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