Bent but not broken in Chennai

This scene on a busy Chennai road is a powerful visual of what the streets of the city are today, for people who have fallen afoul of the consumptive economy. As one of the most densely populated cities in India today, Tamil Nadu’s capital is witnessing a fast deterioration in the quality of life. Real public investment has been shrinking and virtually disappeared after last year’s state elections brought the AIADMK to power. The city has a significant slum population, scorching speculation in property, withdrawal of the government from welfare sectors (in spite of high profile announcements to the contrary), and sheer lack of public circulating space.

No city for old women

Chennai is at the bottom of the list of Indian cities when it comes to pedestrian facilities. Ask this woman on Station View Road, Kodambakkam, which is hostile to walkers.

An old, bent woman making her way along one of the crowded roads in Kodambakkam may be unremarkable to those who have lost touch with the reality that most citizens encounter. This arthritic older adult is almost at the centre of the road, moving ahead painfully with the help of a stick. This is Station View Road. The space at right is actually illusory for walkers, because it is created by a commercial establishment for its own purposes, is not continuous, and pushes a walking person to the centre at several points closer to the suburban railway station.

I remember the spaces available to old people about the age of this woman on the streets of Barcelona when I visited that magnificent city in 2010. Retirees were enjoying themselves, walking along nicely demarcated and smooth footpaths, in groups, chatting. It was a picture of contentment, afforded in part by civic order. What a contrast!

Until Chennai is brought to its senses, and forced to identify clear walking spaces along the margins of its roads, it will remain at the bottom of civilised practice, as this recent news report on walkability in India in the Times of India points out.

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