Footpath: An urban mystery

When you live in a city that has mercury reaching 40 C for more than four months a year, one is robbed of the opportunity to use walking as a regular medium for commuting. So, when winter arrives, I try to walk back home whenever possible, to enjoy cool weather and bustling liveliness that only cities of orient can boast about.

As my route takes me across the entire length the only designer road of the city; I also like to treat it as a study in urban planning!

The most interesting aspect of urban planning in Ahmadabad is that it appears to be done for a target group consisting mainly of young and athletic European males with a hobby of running steeplechases. It is really unfortunate that the individuals for whom the local urban infrastructure is planned for live tens of thousands of kilometers away in a lot cooler weather, so its grand design is wasted on Amadavadis who come in all sizes and shapes, with fitness and steeplechase talent missing in most of them.

Of all the great interventions done on this designer road, the one that I get most mystified by is the footpath. Footpaths of this designer road are designed in the lines of a zen koan, as they provoke an existential doubt in you about why they exist, and just like a koan, they do it through a process that starts with one premise and ends with undermining it completely.

When you step foot on the footpath with a belief that it is meant to be walked upon, within ten short steps, you are likely to get challenged by a half-disemboweled electrical box or a thorny bougainvillea branch or metal advertisement board or a chimpanzee swinging switchblades (that I have not seen yet, but considering the injurious things that manifest here, I won’t dare rule out the possibility).

If you are a stubborn individual firm in your belief that footpaths are made for walking, the only way you can serve your belief-system safely is by developing swift jumping skills while wearing a helmet and stout boots; but even then the meandering journey over an uneven terrain past parked vehicles, spitting security guards, shitting cows and dogs and overturned dustbins will soon dispel any illusion about the purpose of the footpath that you are harboring.

Though raison d’être of footpath defies empirical experience, what is even more mystifying is the fact that we continue making them. What is worse is that we make them in narrow streets where cars parked on both sides need every inch of space, while four feet on both sides are lost to completely useless footpaths.

Be it a footpath or our education system, the greatest tragedy of India is that we can see complete and total failure and yet are unable to make sensible corrections. For some inexplicable reason, we are a nation that can’t learn from our mistakes even if we can see them.

The only possible explanation for this self-destructive trait is that our policy-makers are scared to admitting systemic mistakes because they live in a hostile environment where people are prejudiced about their competence. So, the most common strategy for dealing with mistakes is not of correcting them, but of covering them up.

Unfortunately for urban planners, the problems they are dealing with are far too complex to be able to make correct decisions on drawing boards, and hence learning from making mistakes, often very expensive ones, has to be part of the process. As this most crucial tool of evolving solutions is denied to urban planners, citizens end up suffering from absurdities like wasteful footpaths constructed using crores of Rupees that no one can use.

I am happy to admit that I have managed surviving till now with minimum effort as all my intellect has be used to avoid doing anything meaningful. As I needed to while all the free time I generated in course of being lazy, science has been my favorite muse that I have enjoyed company of. As an effort to kill time (in a way, to get even with it) one fine day I decided to write a science column, more for my personal amusement than to attract readers. After getting educated about the attention span of modern readers from my editor, it became more like a challenge to tackle esoteric subjects in 600 words that I have managed to remain interested in for more than a year now. I do not want to add my worldly profile here as these are ideas that need to be considered only on the merits they carry and not as an opinion of a certain human being.

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