(Originally published in FirstPost)
Mumbai is a city of pedestrians. Still, there is no place to walk in this city. Footpaths are occupied by vendors, encroachments, and in some places, aren’t functional. According to a national survey on urban walkability, it is harder to walk in Mumbai than in cities such as Delhi and Chandigarh.
As a planning and implementation authority, it is responsibility of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to maintain roads and footpaths of the city. According to the BMC, 51% of all trips made in the city are on foot. Despite this, little has been done to fight the menace of encroached footpaths.
A majority of the funds allocated to urban transport are exhausted in maintaining and widening the city roads. However, the construction is often of poor quality and is repeatedly subject to bureaucratic delays and corrupt practices.
The reasons for the BMC not addressing the issues of walkability in Mumbai are varied. Firstly, the existence of multiple agencies such as MMRDA and Public Works Department (PWD) makes it easy for the BMC to evade responsibility by keep passing the buck. This lack of accountability among agencies in preventing encroachments and providing pedestrian-friendly footpaths also results in an increased risk of traffic accidents.
Second, the majority of executive power rests in the hand of the Municipal Commissioner who has access to the best information regarding the delivery of urban services. The Commissioner, being a bureaucrat appointed by the state government for a short period, is not accountable to the citizens of the city. It is this diffusion of accountability, along with the lack of a long-term sustainable plan for the city’s infrastructure, that has made it impossible for citizens to ask for better quality of services.
What is unforgivable is that the footpaths that pavement dwellers and hawkers occupy belong to the public. By taking unfair advantage, they not only secure benefits for themselves but also deprive others their right to use that land. It is the duty of the BMC to maintain law and order in the city and the occupation of footpaths is an example of their failure at doing so. The absence of enforcing property rights aids this encroachment.
The situation calls for a dramatic administrative revamp. Fixing agency overlaps to build and maintain footpaths and removing encroachments can improve the status quo. Efficient planning and design accompanied by participation of residents and pedestrians is essential for improving the state of walkability.
To solve the issues of unaccountable and inefficient governance, there is an urgent need to have a direct elections for the post of a non-reserved Mayor. This will also help bridge the gap between policy making and its execution.
Excessive dependence on the State for funds has also caused hurdles in BMC’s planning. Despite being the richest corporation, the BMC fails to implement changes that can deliver services efficiently. Financial and functional autonomy for the city of Mumbai will not only encourage decision making but also empower leaders to take charge.
To improve urban walkability, the government should work to reduce the need for private transport by increasing the quality as well as the frequency of public modes of transport and by encouraging investments that make cycling and walking safer.
All global cities treat vendors as an integral part of their infrastructure and assign special hawking zones. Closer to home, Bhubaneshwar implemented a public–private partnership model through which as many as 54 vending zones with 2600 kiosks were created (as of 2011).
Municipal Commissioner Ajoy Mehta recently remarked that it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to take his elderly parents for a walk, owing to the pitiable condition of footpaths. He went on to say that creating pedestrian-friendly streets was a priority for the administration. Considering he is at the helm of decision-making in Mumbai, here’s hoping his vested interests somehow benefits Mumbaikars.