Equal Budgets for Equal Streets

[This is the original submission for an article which appeared in a much edited format in TOI as here  and there is more if this interests you in response to my FB post]

How can we have equal streets unless there is an equal provision in our municipal and MMRDA budgets towards equal streets? This is the only thought which comes to my mind when I see the enthusiasm of thousands of residents of this great city who come on to Linking Road and S V Road for a short period of time on Sundays to enjoy the feel of streets free from cars.

As one of the most vocal opponents of the coast road project and also a member of Mumbai Transport Forum and Walking Project, bodies which are championing for improvement in public transport and walking conditions in Mumbai, I can see the disproportionate enthusiasm in the government toward the two issues. While the coast road has been declared as a project of national importance (no less) we see that millions of people using local trains, buses, the metro and who are also pedestrians by default find themselves short changed and deprived of receiving any such enthusiasm and response from politicians.

The municipal corporation intends to spend Rs. 8000 crore of public money to develop a 36km coast road from Marine Drive to Kandivali, which is to most of us in sustainable transport is representative of furthering the already unequal nature of our streets.

The budgets of urban local bodies appear esoteric to most and befuddle even some of us who spend our lives discussing urban issues and governance but these are very important documents, which shape the quality of life for the residents of the city. The budget is a fairly accurate insight into what are the issues of the people, which our politicians and bureaucrats observe, are affected by and consequently decide to impact for the better. Budgets are a statement of intent, of how public money collected from taxes by all the residents of the city will be used and hence need the attention of everybody who pays taxes.

Among the many budgets of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai there is a budgetary provision for the Road Department, which in the current year stands at approximately Rs. 2300 crores. Do citizens have even a modicum of equality or opportunity to shape the road department budget or philosophy? Have those who come on Sundays seen the budget lately?

Having worked with the road department significantly I clearly realise that this is a department whose officials are fundamentally tasked with designing and developing infrastructure meant to facilitate the movement of cars. In 2010, when I was an early employee at EMBARQ India the first proposal I had submitted to MCGM was to set aside funds in the budget for setting up a dedicated unit for Non Motorised Transport which would be staffed with people who are trained to design infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and have a fundamental belief in Equal Streets. The then Additional Municipal Commissioner had jovially remarked to me that this was a very important but not urgent issue.

Being among the founding members of the Equal Streets movement (though not active subsequently) it is my thought and concern that those who are having fun on the streets on Sundays will also decide to become active citizens who truly champion the cause of Equal Streets and not just leave it at fun and games.

[Rishi Aggarwal is an advocate for sustainable mobility policies and is a Research Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai]

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