Can one "walk & talk" in Srinagar? The answer could be yes "quantitatively" but no, "qualitatively". The "yes" is because most of the people either do not own a cycle/car or do not drive. Therefore, under circumstances not under their control, there is no option but to walk. The "No" in simple and plain sense is understood as the sidewalks/footpaths being of no good. Srinagar city as of now is anti-pedestrian and something needs to be done about it. The sooner, the better.
What is the problem? Firstly, there are no quality footpath/sidewalks for pedestrians and whatever is available is in shambles. Footpaths had never been a priority with the policy and decision makers and technically neglected by engineers and planners. While planning, designing and laying of roads/streets, these have never been included in the proposals and even during widening, same negligence has been repeated till date. Somehow, where ever, sidewalks exist on ground, same stands encroached by street vendors and hawkers. Therefore, the people have to walk in the middle of the road making themselves vulnerable to accidents.
Footpaths/sidewalks are not only good for public but for their health too. The more one walks, the more healthy the person is supposed to remain. But the question- are these sidewalks worth walking? These are shabby, irregular and not designed properly. Most of these are highly elevated from the road surface and without any ramp/slope near the corners or cuts. All the vulnerable groups of the society e.g; children, old persons, disadvantaged persons do face a lot of problem while using the footpaths. These are not designed on barrier-free concept so that even ambulant disabled and non-ambulant disabled persons could use them at ease.
A massive master plan for footpaths/sidewalks in the city is need of the hour. Barrier-free walk along pathways in all city roads should be prioritized and investment worth to be made. The efficient cars (in terms of reduced pollution) and multimodal transport and traffic system does not make footpaths insignificant. The concept of complete streets has put the footpaths and pedestrians at the fore front of city development. However, this concept is yet to take shape in Srinagar.
The shopkeepers physically display and exhibit their products outside their shops, rather extending their shop space illegally, thus encroaching the footpaths, and creating hurdles for smooth walk. They violate the right of the walker and the right to walk. Even, some say that these shopkeepers have engaged vendors of their choice to occupy the footpath and the street in front of their shops. Vendors/hawkers have created mayhem and mindless occupation. Despite national vendor policy being in place, vendors and street hawkers show no respect and regard to the rights of pedestrians.
The authorities at the helm of affairs chase these vendors/hawkers day in and day out, the problem seems to have no solution at all and issue turns clueless. Many have been rehabilitated. However, there are serious problems of unemployment with high degree of educational qualifications and the activity being informal in character but plays very important role in urban economic growth. The vendors/hawkers have a right to honourable livelihood and "inclusive cities" give opportunity to all its inhabitants. The strange problem is that these vendors/hawkers/squatters multiply on daily/weekly/monthly basis. If one batch is rehabilitated by providing prime urban space, the other group pops up unexpectedly. The carrying capacity of the roads/streets and footpaths for vendors is not infinite, therefore, vendor population needs to be controlled through structural and non-structural measures.
Apart from shopkeepers and vendors/hawkers, security forces have been creating hurdles by putting barricades on the footpaths/sidewalks. There is a traffic booth near Abdullah Bridge which has occupied the full width of the footpath, forcing the pedestrians to stop, walk down on the main road and then again climb back on the footpath. It is clear violation of the right of the walker. Further, police have occupied and encroached the whole strip/patch of footpath completely –both width & length wise at the Municipal Road, Karan Nagar near District Police Lines/ IGP HQ. They have erected bunkers and check-point, thereby forcing the pedestrians to walk in the middle of the road and increasing probability of accidents. Similarly, the footpath/sidewalk in front of Police Head Quarters, Peer Bagh, is complete violation of the rights of the walkers. Despite PHQ having large chunk of land, they have shown total disregard to the sanctity of the footpath and its users. Even their vehicles including private visitor vehicles are parked on the road side in utter violation of traffic system. They could have adjusted their security bunkers, check-points within their own boundary through proper planning and design, keeping in view, the public needs and their own security parameters. There is no logical security threat if footpaths are kept open and all justifications shall fail and would be meaningless for blocking or creating hurdles in the footpath/sidewalks. This encroachment concept is based on the insensibility of those who occupy the footpath, be it a shopkeeper, vendor or someone else. Let police dismantle such barricades/check points/bunkers on their own to show respect for law and concern for public in general and pedestrians in particular. That would be appreciated by all and it shall send a positive message across board resulting in people-oriented police. This fact is being put here without any bias, discrimination and in total interest of citizen-centric-city.
There are planning, designing and engineering bottle necks too. Take for example, Abdullah Bridge, the width of footpaths on both sides of the bridge at the tail end (slope part) on either side are too narrow, being hardly for one pedestrian to walk. The second person in the same direction or opposite direction has to walk in alignment of the moving traffic, increasing the chance of being hit by the speedy vehicles. Further, on the radio Kashmir side, the narrowest possible width of the footpath has a dead end, blocked by a small standalone short pillar, making our engineering feat to the lowest level of inefficiency. There is no application and supplication of mind at the design stage despite huge expenditure.
The pot holes and the open main holes of the drain in the footpaths are dangerous for all. Children, women, old and disabled are more prone to accidents at such spots. It takes months to set it right. However, during the open period, there is no warning signal placed near the open holes. The erection of electric poles in the middle of the footpath, the plantation of trees in the centre and sometimes, the electric transformers are positioned at odd places and there are other hazards which are not being looked into. Even, the sign boards which are below seven feet or triangular traffic signs/ other display signboards at many places scare a person because of being hit by them. Therefore, efficient designing, planning and engineering of footpath/sidewalk is critical to the safety of the pedestrians/walkers which require of the authorities at the helm of affairs to look into the matter in order to formulate composite and integrated design taking into account kerbs, water supply lines, telephone cables, underground electric cables, lighting poles, non-slippery pavements, plantations/flower pots, dustbins, hoardings/display boards, benches etc. Good and better quality footpaths/sidewalks signify city smartness and public liveability. The earlier we sort this issue of smart sidewalks, the better it is for would-be Smart Srinagar.
The writer is a city planner and public policy analyst with background education in urban planning, architecture, disaster management, sustainable development and human rights.