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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In a nation of billionaires, children with crippled legs

During the recent IPL matches held in Chennai, there were middle class citizens who thought nothing about forking out Rs. 1,000 each to watch what has been proved to be a scandal-ridden spectacle that passes for sport. The prosperity pipeline of the IPL is so constructed, that that thirsty spectators had to pay five rupees for about 50 ml of drinking water in a cup, which the organisers would not sell by the bottle. Those who wanted some food should have at least a hundred rupees in their pockets for a small package of ‘sambar’ rice.

Today, as I stood waiting for the 11.19 towards Velachery on the Fort MRTS platform, I saw a ragpicker couple with a child, about three or four years old. As this picture shows, the child is unable to walk properly and its ankle and feet seemed to be deformed. Every step involved making contact with its heels, rather than the entire foot. It was as if the floor was too hot and it had to rush ahead with minimum contact with the ground.

Can India race towards progress on such weak legs? The child at Fort Station.

There is little doubt that many poor Indians are finding the ground too hot today.  They are like animals that are forced to live on a hot tin roof.

The child was pleading with some passengers for a ‘juice’ drink. An old man of obviously modest means readily fetched one from the nearby kiosk, while another gave the kid a tenner. The couple, who had been collecting the trash outside the station and bagging it, were visibly pleased.

Do our leaders show the same concern about income distribution in policy, which humble tax-paying citizens do? Our leaders talk big, and are more and more visibly muscular in both policy and practice. They use the Police to quell protest, loosen the purse strings only for those who earn obscene incomes legally and then turn a blind eye to those who hoard wealth illegally.

What future does this child have in this GDP-focused billionaire-infested India, where acquiring skills, education and even basic health is now decided by market economists who have thrown the majority of us to greedy corporates?

As a tailpiece, here is an essay written in 2003 by Professor Amartya Sen, on Hunger in India.