While implementing the Smart Cities initiative and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, the government must ensure the aspect of ‘safety’.
There are several factors which contribute towards making cities safe. However, for most of us, safe cities connote issues related to safer roads, up-to-the-mark basic services like public health and drinking water along with safety of children and senior citizens.
Road safety is perhaps the most commonly-raised concern by citizens in Indian cities. High private car ownership on account of increasing disposable income and heightened aspirations has led to overcrowding of our roads.
To accommodate the burgeoning number of cars, we are increasing the width of roads, adding flyovers and in some cases, even adding another tier of road network on the top. In the process we are losing out on footpath widths. The narrowing footpath width — further encroached by informal vendors — is compelling people to tread on roads, resulting in a rise in accidents.
The situation is compounded by the poor state of pavements, signage and illumination.
Coming to residential and lesser order streets, the situation is no less complex. Streets are fully packed with cars and there is little space for people to walk. Elders dread their walks while parents dread sending out their children. Exceptions are of course few and far between.
Bus commutes within the cities are not only tiring but also unsafe due to overcrowding. Also, in most cities, bus stops are poorly designed and not properly illuminated. Under such a situation the metro rail has emerged as an alternative. However, the metro has its limitations. Often, the last mile connectivity is absent.
According to a 2014 assessment on road safety by the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), about 16 deaths and 58 road injuries occur per hour in India. The share of fatal accidents has gone up from 18 per cent in 2003 to 25 per cent in 2012. Further, the same assessment observes that Delhi records an average of five road accident deaths per day; four of these are of pedestrians and two-wheeler riders. Every week, two cyclists and one car rider dies in Delhi.
Thus, one can see that Indian cities are being designed are engineered more for vehicles than for people. Unless this trend is reversed, safety will remain a dream.
Nearly half of Delhi lives in non-engineered buildings. These do not conform to any laid-down standards. They comprise of the over 1,800 unauthorised colonies and jhuggis or squatter/slum areas. Nearly 50 lakh people live in unauthorised buildings which shoots up and above four floors and are set in narrow lanes. In the event of a natural disaster little can be done then to rescue lives. Similarly, in the jhuggis, garbage dumps, unclean drinking water and unhygienic surroundings are major health hazards. Also, industries within the cities are major sources of air pollution, which needs to be constantly monitored and effluents safely disposed of.
The Way Forward
Globally, the trend is now to design keeping humans at the centre of the process. We need to move people, not vehicles. Therefore, we need to make mass transport system for the public more comfortable, affordable, inviting and popular.
Once this is done, the pedestrian infrastructure, in terms of the pavement design, materials and finishes have to be carefully worked out. There should be proper seating arrangements at the bus stops.
When all this is available, gradually, a shift from private car ownership to public modes would take place. Individuals will reduce usage of their vehicles. This means that we would need to start shrinking our road widths and start widening our footpath spaces and make them more user-friendly. Specialists need to be hired by the local agencies for careful execution of planned works.
Special attention needs to be given to properly illuminating roads, footpaths, car parking lots, parks and such other public areas.
Similarly, in the unauthorised colonies, awareness on safety issues needs to be made and governments have to spend on clean-up drives. People should be encouraged to retrofit their buildings to make them earthquake resistant. Colonies with narrow lanes, where conventional fire tenders cannot enter, must procure alternate fire-fighting equipment.
Improvement programmes need to be undertaken in jhuggis to make them safe for human habitation from all points of view.
The government is about to launch two major flagship programmes — the Smart Cities and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) —with an outlay of around Rs 98,000 crore. Both these missions seek to cover a large number of cities across the country. While implementing these schemes, it is necessary that both incorporate the aspect of ‘safety’ which is of prime concern in urban areas.
The author is a senior Professor and Urban Development Specialist at SPA, New Delhi.