Work has begun on the much-awaited pedestrian walkway that is set to replace the old median on Luz Church Road in Mylapore. This is to continue all the way to North Mada Street where it will link to wide footpaths. While this is to provide pedestrians with some much-needed relief, it is also meant to showcase the built heritage that continues to survive in the area. But, as usual, the project, while well intentioned, has run into some controversy, chiefly due to the public doubting the political will to retain the space as it is meant to be.
The project, first mooted in 2013 as a heritage walkway, is structured in such a fashion that the median walkway will link via table-top crossings to the pavements on the Mada Streets so that pedestrians can walk without impediment. The Corporation council dragged its feet over the approvals and it was only a few months ago that the necessary sanctions came. Work has now begun to shift all cables underground and, more importantly, remove all the encroachments along the Mada Streets to facilitate laying of pavements.
Residents are however unimpressed. They are of the view that the entire project will fail because it is not sustainable in the long run. The greatest fear is that hawkers will return to occupy the pavements, thereby forcing the pedestrians on to the carriageway. Presently, with the sidewalks practically non-existent, the road can accommodate the vehicles and those walking alongside with the customary ‘adjustments’ that are necessary on any Indian road. But once the pavements are laid, it is estimated that the carriageway will be restricted by 15 per cent. In case the hawkers are allowed to usurp the walkways, the chaos on the roads will only increase. Do our enforcement agencies, namely the police and the Corporation have the will to ensure discipline? Sadly, the answer is ‘no.’
There is a point of view that the residents of and visitors to the area treat the problem of hawkers with indifference and if only they complained the authorities will take action. The rejoinder to that comes from the locals themselves. Is it not the duty of those in office to observe blatant violation of the law and enforce discipline, they ask. And it cannot be denied that they are quite correct in their view. Besides, there is always the fear that anyone who complains can be harassed by vested interests. Not everyone in our city can become a Traffic Ramaswamy.
Does the project go against the interest of hawkers? Not really. Arrangements have been made to relocate those currently vending in the area to a place near Chitrakulam. But what is not envisaged is that a fresh batch of tradesmen may take the place of those who have left. This is where the role of enforcement agencies becomes crucial. Will they actively monitor this to prevent such an occurrence?
Yet another set of offenders comprises the political parties. At present, any wide open space is interpreted by them to mean a space where they can erect political banners and hoardings. Holes are dug with impunity and banners are put up blocking access to vast stretches of pedestrian space. Beach Road and Dr RK Salai are perhaps the worst affected but spaces such as Luz Church Road can be prime targets if the space is available. At present, the Corporation and the police prefer to turn a blind eye to such violations even though there are clear judgements from the High Court of Madras on these topics.
So what price the median walkway? Will it remain as it is envisaged? The answer lies with the authorities and also the pedestrians. If the latter use the space well, violators may think twice about misusing it. And that may keep the enforcement agencies on their toes too.
PS: The project has since been given a quiet burial though sadly the debris has not. But the questions raised above are relevant even now.
Pic courtesy Karthik A Bhatt.