Roads and redistributive injustice

To try and disallow people from jaywalking is an encroachment on the commons.

A certain type of angst arises when some in the Subcontinent look at Western cities and compare them with our own megalopolises. Often, such comparisons are followed by a deep sigh. Slow traffic, narrow roads, people all over on the streets, flaunting of traffic rules, all this coupled with the incredible spectrum of vehicles, cycles and animals – well, traffic of the type that is enjoyed in many Western cities quickly comes to look like an unattainable dream. The nature of the 'solutions' that are then discussed are predictable: widening of roads (including tearing down of slums), getting people off the streets by tightening and enforcing traffic rules and, possibly, keeping rickshaws and bicycles out of the busier areas. Yet these ideas indicate something deeply troubling about the nature of our urban citizenship – who is included and who is not, who the city is 'for' and who not.

Among the upwardly mobile in Southasian cities, there is an evolving homogenising vision of what the future of urbanity should look like. This vision has been long in the making, expressed privately in deep frustration. Today, however, this progressively exclusive vision has enough confidence to be forthright about itself, under the garb of urban development in the new millennium.

Still, some facts are worth mentioning at the outset. At least 40 percent of the population of Calcutta and Delhi, and at least 50 percent in Dhaka, live in the bostee, or slums. The bostee represents not only the underbelly of a city, but also a constant, living critique of its dominant socio-political order, as enunciated by the political scientist Ashis Nandy. Hence, the question of roads and traffic collectively constitute just another extended stage on which the contestation of ownership of the city can be acted out. In this contest, there is a more plural view of the city from one side: no slum ever dares to imagine that it will gobble up the quarters of the perfumed. Rather, the city that the slum and the lower middle class imagine necessarily includes those very catagories who want to see the slums – and the jaywalkers – eradicated.

The dominant urban vision, meanwhile, has no time or imagination for such plurality. In fact, for some reason, the city the elite classes want almost never looks like the city in which they live. Many are ashamed of it. When I was growing up in Chetla, a part of Kolkata that is far from posh, I would often hear people say that they lived 'near New Alipore' – New Alipore being a elite quarter where, for instance, one would find far fewer people wearing lungis and brushing their teeth in the streets in the morning. What would these maladjusted souls have thought about their great-grandfather from the village, garu (water-carrying vessel) in hand, crossing a meadow in the morning to defecate in the field?

In present times, the thrust to 'clean up' the cities and their streets has something very peculiar at its core: distributive injustice. The city's commons belong to everyone, of course, as do its streets. Indeed, the streets being common property, it would seem fitting that the proportion of a metalled road to sidewalk in a given street should be commensurate with the nature of use. The proportion of people using the footpath to the proportion of people in cars is a good indicator of how land intended for common transport is to be divided. But has anyone ever heard of footpath-widening taking place on pre-existing roads, given there are now more pedestrians than ever? There is a good reason why the shrinking, unmaintained footpath has become such a low priority in the city's development: this is all about staking out territory for some, of showing who is in charge.

In the minds of the upwardly mobile, footpaths are quickly being thrown in the same category as government hospitals – places they do not go to and, hence, do not care about. Given the restrictive view of the urban future, this group wants to mark out a city for its own, within the city. This progressive loss of free walking space, alongside the sophisticated and exclusionary plans of 'urban development', represents an on-the-ground example of exactly this marking out of a city for 'people like us': those with 'cleaner' habits, 'orderly' manners and 'refined' sensibilities. There is a barely implicit collective will, laced with power and interest; and when those things combine, there surely is a way. The arc of that way, in fact, bends sharply towards the interests of the new mandarins of the urban space, in whose vision an increasing proportion of the city-dwellers are considered quasi-trespassers.

Jaywalking for freedom
In a situation where much of the city's population is considered to be trespassers who are to be avoided, the upper classes are inevitably conjuring up feelings of being besieged. And so, they look to find 'order' and 'security' in that spectacular physical expression of maladjustment and alienation to the living ecology of a city: the gated community. An entire generation is growing up with limited or no consciousness of the bostee, the rail-line jhupri, khalpar and udbastu (refugee) colonies. This is not because these communities no longer exist, but because they have been eradicated from the 'new' city. Somehow, the elites have managed to carve out a sterilised existence wherein much of the city does not dare to show itself. All of this would not matter much if the elites were not disproportionately influential in conceiving the future of the entire city, rather than just with regards to their gated portions of it. Yet although these people have their gated communities, they still have to deal with gateless roads – at least, so far.

The central question of a sustainable ecological future is certainly not irrelevant to the future of our cities. The multi-faceted philosopher Cornel West says that justice is what love looks like in public – and in the context of urban resource allocation, distributive justice has to come from love of the city and all of its peoples. This includes the rights of the pedestrian, the thelawala cart-plyer, the cyclist – and, yes, also the motorised. But in the case of motorised vehicles, the question of passenger density is conceivably at the heart of, among others, the ecological question. Through top-down orders, an increasing number of areas in Kolkata have seen bicycles banned from plying on certain streets. Something is to be said of this sanitisation of the streets of non-motorised transport. If nothing else, criminalising non-motor transport and encouraging the rapid expansion of low passenger density through private four-wheeler transport, Kolkata policymakers show to which world they belong.

This brings us to jaywalking. The men and women behind the wheels tend to hate these people, or at least tend to complain about them a lot – those uncouth sorts, running across the streets, everywhere! And so there are calls for tightening traffic rules with more-punitive fines, and additional calls for an increase in vigilant traffic police. In the absence of gated streets (yet), perhaps we can ensure a semblance of them by keeping jaywalkers out of the streets?

In fact, the traffic police do make half-hearted attempts to control jaywalking. They recruit children from poorer schools, who spend days volunteering at busy intersections. But the effort is bound to fail, because – and here is the rub – it is not actually a question of who is doing the jaywalking. Rather, this is just a rat's nest of contending ideas about whom the city belongs to, of predictable eyesores counter-posed with those who want to superimpose Paris or Singapore in Mumbai and Dhaka – the stuff of the fantasies of 'resident non-Indians'.

So, the jaywalkers keep on walking. The urban-industrial vision of the elites is a totalising one: it brooks no opposition. It is distinctly irked by every interstice that is unfilled, and deems that as a nuisance at best and a law-and-order problem at worst. In our cities of ever-decreasing spaces, of all crevices being accounted for by census and survey, the act of brisk jaywalking restores a measure of dignity to the vaunted idea of the city's commons – a noble act of daily indiscretion. In the haphazard trajectories of the jaywalkers can be found the multiple ways towards a plural, open and just future for our beloved cities.

-Garga Chatterjee is a research scholar in psychology at Harvard University.

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Himal Southasian