Time to reclaim Puducherry’s shrinking pedestrian space

With footpaths becoming the default location for all kinds of installations, residents call for a concerted effort to rid the city of encroachments

Pedestrian space in Puducherry is on its last legs with most of the footpaths and side walks on main thoroughfares being occupied by shops and business establishments leaving barely any space for pedestrians. Shops and commercial establishments stocking their goods on the pavements and extending their shops onto the road is a common sight across the city.

Though the District Road Safety Committee meeting chaired by Collector T. Arun had in April directed the Puducherry and Oulgaret municipalities and line departments to clear encroachments within May 21, the town is yet to get rid of encroachments.

Consequently, encroachments have made a comeback and footpaths across Puducherry, particularly those in busy commercial areas including Jawaharlal Nehru Street, Mahatma Gandhi Road, Anna Salai and Kamaraj Salai have shrunk. A visit to the commercial areas revealed that footpaths have been taken over by traders obstructing the movement of pedestrians resulting in frequent traffic snarls.

According to Sunaina Mandeen of PondyCan, “There should be a concerted effort in removing encroachments. During a recent eviction drive, the main encroachers were left untouched while the street vendors were removed. The permanent shops who have taken over public space were never touched. All sections including the authorities, elected representatives, police, vendors, neighbourhood and the civil society should sit together and arrive at a solution on a case-to-case basis.”

Ms. Mandeen said that space for pedestrians has shrunk over the years. Walking on the road near the Chief Secretariat is difficult with hawkers occupying both sides of the stretch. Earlier, all shops were closed on Sundays and the side walks were used by hawkers to display their wares during the Sunday Bazaar. However, the shops have taken over the side walks during the weekdays and the roads are not navigable at all, she said.

A glaring example of shops taking over the entire side walks is on Jawaharlal Nehru Street. Though the shops are rented out by the Puducherry Municipality, the shopkeepers and business establishments have extended their shops on to the road completely occupying them. Several shops have used the pavements for storing their goods taking away their utility.

The authorities seem to be completely oblivious to the rampant encroachments across the town. For instance, a snacks outlet on Bussy Street has put up a ramp and modified the pavement with space for chairs and tables while a biryani vendor on Anna Salai has also completely obstructed the pathway. Other main thoroughfares such as Kamaraj Salai, Mission Street and Mahatma Gandhi Road also present a similar picture. The pavement on Mahatma Gandhi Road and Montorsier Street junction has been occupied by a furniture store with wooden sofa sets and cupboards kept on the pavement.

In Puducherry, almost all sections of people including business establishments, Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) and the Government buildings are guilty of encroachment in one way or the other. Several major heritage buildings of the Government in the Boulevard have fenced off their pavements forcing people to walk on the roads.

A nationalised bank next to the Government General Hospital has encroached the footpath with plants while the footpath in front of the PWD headquarters on Bussy Street is being used as parking space for two-wheelers by employees. The footpath on all the four sides of the Raj Nivas has also been fenced forcing people to walk on the roads.

According to Devangi Ramakrishnan, Urban Designer with Urban Design Collective, “The footpath is the default location for all manner of installations by the municipality and other departments — public toilets, electrical transformers, large dustbins, redundant fixtures and signages, and lastly parking of vehicles by employees.

“The impunity with which privileged sections of society encroach our city’s footpaths, leave the ordinary and most vulnerable section — the pedestrian, that includes in large numbers schoolchildren and the elderly — to put their lives at risk daily while walking through traffic. These violations across the board lead to a vicious blame game cycle paralysing all efforts towards anti-encroachment and restoration of footpaths to pedestrians.”

The encroachment from street vendors is minimal as compared to the ‘regularised’ encroachment by private owners. Additionally, street vending is regularised under national policy, hence only licensed vendors can operate in designated zones. Street vending can meaningfully be incorporated into ROW (Right of Way) design of the city’s streets to benefit both shoppers and vendors, Ms. Ramakrishnan said.

“Immediate impactful short-term actions can be taken by the government around their own properties to remove encroachments and building footpaths, thus setting a positive precedent and benchmark encouraging others to follow. Next, footpaths around schools should be made encroachment-free and safe for children along with safe road crossing and traffic calming measures.

Third, road crossings and traffic intersections should be improved and made safe for pedestrians as per national best practice standards. These 3 actions, if made on priority, will begin to create awareness and sensitivity towards the importance of safe and encroachment-free footpaths, making it easier for subsequent reclaiming of footpaths for their rightful purpose – walking”, Ms. Ramakrishnan said.

In the long-term, the issue of footpaths cannot be seen in isolation but needs to be linked to an overall sustainable mobility strategy for the city that prioritises efficient and safe public transport at multiple scales, non-motorised transport like bicycling, and walking as attractive options to citizens.

This in turn will reduce our current dependency on motorised two-wheelers and cars and encourage walking. Puducherry has considerable advantage at being a national leader in this regard — it is a compact, dense city that is eminently suited for walking and bicycling — average trip lengths by bike are less than national average and can be covered by walking, she said. In Puducherry, 27.7 % of people walk to their destinations while 11 percent use the cycle. Two-wheeler users account for the major share of 40% while cycle-rickshaws account for a mere 0.1 percent. About 42.2 % of Pondicherrians use private transport to travel within the city while 57.8 % walk and use public transport to commute within the city, according to the Comprehensive Mobility Plan, she said.

R. Rajangam, secretary of Communist Party of India (Marxist) said that the government should not violate the rights of street vendors in the name of removing encroachments. Puducherry is yet to implement the provisions of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act, 2014, which came into force in 2014.

The authorities have been disturbing poor street vendors while it was not taking any action to evict persons who had encroached upon government poramboke lands in the city. He alleged that the municipal authorities were going after street vendors holding them responsible for the city’s problems without creating facilities for them. The authorities should give up the move and the police should not harass them.

The government should take effective steps for implementing the provisions of the Street Vendors (Protection of Livelihood and Regulation of Street Vending) Act 2014 and create awareness among officials about it. The new Act was enacted by the Centre to protect the rights of urban street vendors and to regulate street vending activities. A committee should be constituted and it should conduct a survey of all existing street vendors, Mr. Rajangam added.

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