A month ago, there was a small news item that may have escaped the attention of many. Our city’s Corporation received an award at Urban Mobility India, a conference conducted by the Union Ministry of Urban Development. The award, we learn, was for the civic body’s continued efforts to make our roads a comfortable place for pedestrians and non-motorised transport users. That may come as a surprise to many. What is even more surprising is that the Corporation claims to have put this policy into practice on 26 important thoroughfares and is planning to take it up in 29 more.

And so what has really happened to these roads? With the help of city-based organisations that have for long been fighting for better utilisation of available space, the Corporation has provided continuous and accessible pavements, relocated obstructions such as electrical boxes and garbage bins, created safe cycle paths and streamlined traffic. The new pavements have been designed according to Indian Road Congress standards and are aimed to provide “continuous and unhindered walking” and “reduce conflicts between pedestrians and vehicles.” There are photographs to back these claims as well. But a recent visit to some of these places indicates that matters are still in a nascent stage and the Corporation’s claim of progress may be premature. In short, its intentions are good, but there is very little to back this by way of action.

The Chennai Corporation is a pioneering civic body in that it adopted a Non Motorised Transport (NMT) policy. This was in 2012 when it was decided that solutions to the road woes of the city would no longer come from flyovers but by sensitively redesigning the city space and enhancing pedestrian infrastructure. The NMT policy mandates that 60 per cent of a city’s transport budget ought to be directed towards walking and cycling initiatives. The policy also aims at zero pedestrian and cyclist death by 2018.

It must be mentioned in this context that Chennai, which once had a high proportion of non-motorised transport users, has since lost out on this edge, thanks to a completely misplaced emphasis on catering to the comforts of the owners of passenger cars. This despite the fact that cars occupy less than ten per cent of the available road space in the city! The Corporation is largely to be blamed for this. Beginning with 1996, it has worked overtime in reducing pavement space, putting up huge flyovers that have completely altered street topography and not monitoring the illegal takeover of what little space that is left by vendors, political parties and private owners. Now it would appear that all that is set to change.

But can it become a reality? A simple survey would reveal that the Corporation may have the best intentions, but if it is to implement them successfully, it needs to change the mindset of just about every other stakeholder, including its officials. Pavements have been lost to makeshift car parking thanks to commercial establishments and residential complexes that have come up without any parking spaces planned in them. Who is to blame for this? The CMDA and the Corporation which, after all, are in charge of licensing such construction and monitoring them! Most new buildings are now on high plinths requiring steep slopes for vehicles to enter and exit and the ramps have to perforce extend on to the roads. Why do the buildings have to be constructed on high surfaces? Because the road surfaces keep rising in our city! And why do they rise? Because the Corporation does not adhere to road laying norms. These are just two small examples of how the Corporation’s own NMT policy may come a cropper thanks to its own practices.

And so, those who give awards for the civic body’s good intentions may have jumped the gun somewhat. If only all of our Corporation’s well-meant resolutions made it to action, we would be a virtual heaven on earth.