Reclaiming the Streets
The transport infrastructures of New Delhi
The streets of New Delhi are unforgiving for pedestrians. The roads are choked with motorised traffic, and sidewalks are often encroached upon by vehicles parked illegally. Those on foot — remain in conflict with the complex maze of traffic, exposed to the risk of crashes and accidents. As a result, pedestrians account for 47% of the fatalities in the city. (1)
The allocation of funds towards the development of the transport infrastructure makes it clear that public walkways have failed victim to policy neglect. “despite budgets almost doubling between 2002–07, 80% of the money spent on transport has gone into widening roads, sometimes at the cost of sidewalks. Hardly any has been spent on pedestrian facilities.” (2) The transport infrastructures in place have been designed and engineered for those who have access to private vehicles, leaving the average pedestrian invisible.
Star describes an infrastructure as standardized systems embedded into the fabric of social structures, technologies and interactions. They are meant to invisibly support routine task, without the need to reinvented or reassembled every time (3). However, it is where infrastructures break down, that they are revealed to us. They cease to exist merely in the background, and become difficulties or barriers we have to overcome. Vertesi posits that “infrastructures often collide: their seams are visible in their many edges, endings and exclusions.” The exclusion of the pedestrian that highlights the seams of the transport infrastructures of New Delhi. (4)
However, the people have responded to the lack of safe, pedestrian-friendly zones in their environment by banding together as a community to reclaim their public spaces that are rightfully theirs. Their solution, called Raahgiri Day (from raahgir, Urdu, roughly “one that belongs to the roads”) is India’s “first sustained car-free citizen initiative”. It entails temporary closure of networks of streets to cars, leaving them accessible to not only pedestrians, but also cyclists and public transit commuters. A typical Raahgiri event also invites children and adults alike invited to run, play, exercise, and dance on the streets. (5)
The organisers of the initiative have adopted a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach to transforming streets into bustling public places. They provide movable resources like pop-up stages, bicycles, sports equipment, and yoga mats. All people have to do is show and claim a spot. The event also provides a platform to educate people about road safety, health, and sustainable lifestyles. After the popularity of the initial events organized in Gurgaon (a leading financial and industrial area just outside of New Delhi, part of the National Capital Region), it quickly grained traction, and is now hosted every Sunday morning in multiple neighborhoods across NCR. Raahgiri is, essentially, an infrastructure owned and maintained by the community to fill the gaps where the existing structures have failed. (6)
Vertesi says that by studying the seams of an infrastructure, we can surface the “actors’ agency in the context of multi-infrastructural environments” The success of Raahgiri reveals the “actors’ local struggles and points of mastery with otherwise unwieldy infrastructures.” (7) It is telling of the flaws in the existing infrastructures, and, more importantly, the ability of humans to overcome such barriers by not only synthesizing the alignment between these disparate systems, but also creating valuable shared experiences.
(1) Centre for Science and Environment, 2009.
(2) Ambika Pandit, Ruhi Bhasin & Megha Suri, “Delhi limps behind in walkability index”, 2009.
(3) Susan Leigh Star, “The Ethnography of Infrastructure,” American Behavioral Scientist 43.3 (1999): 381
(4) Janet Vertesi, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction,” Science, Technology and Human Values 39.2: 6
(6) Nidhi Gulati, ““Sweet Rebellion”: Reclaiming India’s Streets with Raahgiri Day”, 2014.
(7) Janet Vertesi, “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction,” Science, Technology and Human Values 39.2: 14.