Streets connect people, roads carry freight. While the street has often been equated to a stage where the ballet of life plays out, roads appear to be its impassive counterpoint. On your neighbourhood street, it’s not unusual for the halwai to make his samosas and tantalise you with the aroma as you walk past, for the barber to give you a nod as you cross his one-chair shop and for the tailor to promise that you will have the altered pant tomorrow. You might meet a neighbour who stops to enquire if you’ve been well. All this when you have dodged the errant motorist who has parked his car on the pavement and the cyclist who’s riding in the opposite direction towards you.
The chaos on Indian streets is legendary, chronicled by travellers and writers through centuries. Indian-American anthropologist Arjun Appadurai, in his article “Street Culture” (The Indian Magazine, 1987), writes: “Streets capture more about India than any other setting. On its streets, India eats, works, sleeps, moves, celebrates and worships.” When did our gullies become “roads”? Architect and urban planner Ranjit Sabikhi remembers how his children could cycle or walk down Delhi’s Panchsheel streets without any obstructions en route. The six-ft pavement had ample place for pedestrians and the 36-ft road, if you took away the 18-ft right of way in the middle, still made room for a four-lane drive. As changes in the master plan were allowed for residential areas to turn commercial and the number of cars grew in families, pavements began to disappear.
Delhi grew to become a motor city. Sabikhi recalls that with the first master plan Connaught Place was declared a major commercial centre. Therefore, the areas around — Barakhamba Road, Kasturba Gandhi Marg all the way to Hailey Road — also turned commercial. The floor-area ratio (FAR) was nearly 4.5, which meant you could build 4.5 times the area of the plot. But, with that, came setbacks, as large as 50 ft for the front, 15 ft for the side and 30 ft for the rear. This meant that the multistorey buildings stood isolated from the main roads. It was the mid-1980s, and architects like Raj Rewal and Kuldip Singh suggested a pedestrian walkway that connected all buildings on the first floor. It would allow for smooth traffic and help those on foot to explore the area safely. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation supposedly took fees for the construction of the walkway, but it never got built. “Today, with the metro, if there had been a pathway, it would have been much more lively even after office hours,” says Sabikhi.
Areas such as Connaught Place and Khan Market were proposed as pedestrian markets more than two decades ago. What have we lost in our inability to walk on our streets? French scholar Michel de Certeau, in his book The Practice of Everyday (1980), has a chapter, ‘Walking in the City’, where he says that a city is “generated by the strategies of governments, corporations and other institutional bodies who produce maps that describe the city as a unified whole”. He argues that the act of walking by ordinary people presents an element of “creative resistance to those structures”, and in doing so reclaims autonomy from commerce, politics and culture.
As protesters take to the streets to stake their claim to social justice, it’s not just an act of protest, it’s a remembrance of what we lost as a nation when we gave up our right to the city.
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