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Foot soldiers unite

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STEP BY STEP: Citizens groups in Borivli's IC Colony create awareness about the misuse of footpaths

Walking Project, a citizen-driven initiative, is inspiring pedestrians to reclaim the footpaths.

Ashok Pai, in his mid-30 s, is a resident of JB Nagar in Andheri (East), a suburb of Mumbai. Every day, he walks the 2km stretch from home to his office in Marol. It might be good exercise but it isn't a pleasant experience. "There is hardly any footpath on this 2 km-stretch. Whatever is there is either broken or encroached upon, forcing pedestrians like me to walk on the road braving peak rush hour traffic," says Pai.

Pai isn't exaggerating the dangers to his life. Even though a Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) survey conducted between 2005 and 2008 says 52 per cent of all trips in Mumbai are made on foot (much higher than Delhi's 21 per cent and Chennai's 27 per cent), there are hardly any decent footpaths in the city. Worse, over 57 per cent of road accident victims are pedestrians according to EMBRAQ India, a Mumbai-based transport think-tank. It analysed all road accidents in the city between 2008 and 2012.

While the government is busy promoting large infrastructure projects, pedestrians are left to fend for themselves. Worse, these projects have aggravated pedestrian woes. "Because of Metro construction, all footpaths are either broken or inaccessible, " says an angry Shivani Shah, who lives on JP Road in Andheri (West), where work on Metro's first line is underway.

Talk the talk to walk the talk

Fed up of the government's apathy, a group of young activists have decided to take up the cudgels. As a symbolic gesture, they launched the Walking Project last year in June during the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. Walkable cities are the best fix for the green crisis, they point out.

The project has a 10-year mandate to create a healthy walking environment in Mumbai. "Mumbaikars don't even realise they have a right to walk. So, the first task of our project is to create that awareness and initiate a dialogue around walking in the city, " says Rishi Aggarwal, an environmentalist and founder member of the project. Apart from him, there are four more founder members. Aggarwal knows that for the initial 4-5 years, there will be no visible results. The success will lie in creating a mass movement.

People from various civic wards of Mumbai have already joined this project. These members regularly hold meetings to discuss pedestrian problems in their area and list out potential activities for the coming months. On June 5 this year (World Environment Day), various street activities were organised. Members held banners, distributed pamphlets and got a prowalking petition signed by pedestrians. This petition will soon be submitted to the mayor and the municipal commissioner.

Shaping the future

In the last one year, Walking Project has received help from unexpected quarters. In the month of April and May this year, two final-year students of St Xaveir's College volunteered with the project. Serena Fernando and Tanya Monteiro organised several citizens' meetings, followed by pedestrian audits. "Volunteering with Walking Project gave us a different perspective on environment and sustainability. We will continue our association with it," said Fernando.

Some city planners and architects are also pitching in. For instance, apart from participating in street-level activities, Zohra Mutabanna, an urban design architect, is helping design pamphlets for the project. "Government lacks foresight. Rather than planning for the demand (pedestrians), it is busy planning for the supply (private cars)," she says.

Pedestrian audits

The most interesting activity of Walking Project is the pedestrian audit - a person simply walks on a stretch of road and documents his/her experiences. In April this year, six pedestrian audits were conducted in Ghatkopar (West), Flora Fountain (South Mumbai), Malad (East), Maheshwari Udyan (Matunga), Andheri Kurla Road, and Malad (West). "Our audit found that there was not even 10 metres of free and continuous footpath on the Andheri-Kurla road, which is extensively used by pedestrians to reach Andheri station, " says Pai. He and some other members are now preparing a formal proposal for pedestrianisation of Andheri Kurla Road.

Meanwhile Aggarwal is working towards developing an online street audit to encourage citizen participation. An interactive website of the project will soon be launched. He also plans to organise a "Walk Expo" (as against Auto Expo) in the month of December this year to bring together various stakeholders and show pedestrians' strength.

The speed bumps

Funding is still a problem. Some money is raised through membership fees and donations but no support has been forthcoming from the authorities. In January this year, Aggarwal wrote to the municipal commissioner requesting him to create model walking stretches (200 metres each) in all 24 wards of Mumbai. So far, he has received no reply. But, that hasn't dampened the spirit of Aggarwal and other members.

"Ten years back, when I started campaigning to protect mangroves, most people had not even heard about them. Today, both citizens and state forest department are protecting them. We expect similar results from the Walking Project," says an optimistic Aggarwal.

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