- Punjab, in May this year, issued instructions to make footpaths mandatory in all future road expansions and construction of new ones under its Right To Walk mandate.
- So far, Patiala district has formally adopted the policy and begun groundwork.
- Experts point out infrastructure development and behaviour change as challenges. They believe Right To Walk is important for climate goals, too.
Punjab enforced the Right To Walk, as per Article 21 of the Indian constitution, in May this year, following a 2010 petition filed in the Punjab and Haryana High Court demanding safety for pedestrians on state roads.
The executive orders, released in the second week of May, direct all road-making agencies operating in the state, including the National Highway Authority of India, the state public works department and local bodies department to ensure there are footpaths in all future expansion of roads and construction of new ones, the Punjab chief secretary, who released the order, told Mongabay-India.
Experts say, the move could save lives and help reduce carbon emissions, too.
Within Punjab, the Patiala district has finalised and is implementing the policy and begun initial work on creating new footpaths.
4,516 lives lost to road accidents in 2021
Punjab’s Road Accidents and Traffic Report released last year revealed that pedestrian fatalities in Amritsar, Jalandhar, and Ludhiana, which are some of Punjab’s main districts, were 21%, 19%, and 13% of total road accidents, respectively, in 2021.
Overall, pedestrian deaths in Punjab amounted to 8.7% of the total road accident fatalities, according to the National Crime Record Bureau’s last available report for the year 2021. Pedestrian deaths in India are 12.2% of the total road accidents, according to the report.
Punjab lost 4,516 lives to road accidents in 2021, of which pedestrian deaths were 395. Nationwide, 155,622 individuals succumbed to road accidents, including 18,936 pedestrians, as per NCRB report.
The number of pedestrian fatalities is feared to be higher in 2022. Even as Punjab police have yet not officially released data for 2022 and NCRB’s latest report is also awaited, Navdeep Asija, traffic advisor to the Punjab government, estimated, in an article published on July 31, that more than 1,100 pedestrian deaths were reported on various roads of the state in 2022.
Gurpeet Singh, an official with a government agency notified as the Lead Agency on Punjab Road Safety, in Punjab and which has been appointed nodal agency for RTW, told Mongabay-India that the policy implementation in Punjab is at the initial stage.
Various government authorities are working on guidelines to ensure footpaths are included in the expansion plans of roads. However, he adds that the state government’s directions are very clear that footpaths are a must in all future road constructions.
Harman Sidhu, member, Punjab Road Safety Council told Mongabay-India that earlier Punjab never prioritised footpaths in their road construction. Enforcing the right to walk is a good step in Punjab but it is largely on papers so far. Punjab must play proactive role if they have taken the initiative, he said.
While Singh says that this policy will be important in ensuring the safety of pedestrians on the roads and reducing their fatalities, Asija says that enforcing RTW in Punjab, while a step in the right direction, has many challenges and efforts needed, such as developing pedestrian-friendly infrastructure.
Punjab has a total road network of roughly 75,000 kilometres. However, most of the cities and towns in Punjab do not have dedicated footpaths for walkers. Some of these footpaths were removed in road expansion projects. Crossings are unsafe, making it even more risky for pedestrians, Asija adds.
Constructing footpaths and making them seamless, especially at crossings, is a tedious exercise in these areas due to space constraints, he said.
He believes another major work is about the engagement of civil society and bringing behavioural change among people. “Nevertheless, the Right To Walk in Punjab has statutory backing now, and footpaths have become non-negotiable,” he added.
Meanwhile, the policy adopted by the Patiala district has already tasted its first success. Patiala Deputy Commissioner Sakshi Sawhney told Mongabay-India that the local administration recently brought back the pavement on a city’s congested road near Dukh Nirwan Gurudwara, which was earlier done away with as part of a road widening exercise.
She said footpaths were removed from other areas, which are now slowly being restored after proper auditing.
Responding to how difficult the policy implementation is, she responded that it is quite challenging. In road widening projects, infrastructure made for pedestrians is the first thing that gets compromised. Then, there are encroachments by street vendors, construction debris, etc.
“We need to balance the need for road widening as well as creation of footpaths for walkers while at the same time providing proper space to street vendors,” she said.
She said the key is to continue engagement with all stakeholders and improve.
Walking could lower carbon footprint
The Right To Walk policy is not just about road safety, it can be aligned with climate change policies, say experts.
Suman Mor, Associate Professor at the Department of Environment Studies at Panjab University, Chandigarh, told Mongabay-India that changing the way we travel can play a big role not just in reducing road fatalities but also in protecting the environment if more people are supported to walk rather than use vehicles.
According to her, while transformation is underway in the transportation and energy sector to reduce carbon emissions, promoting walking can also help reduce per capita carbon footprint if implemented properly.
She said many cities in the West have made walking zones and promoted pedestrian infrastructure as part of their climate change policies to reduce air pollution, promote physical health benefits and reduce noise pollution.
Harjeet Singh, head of global political strategy at Climate Action Network International, also said that the right to walk in India is more than just a pedestrian privilege; it is a pathway to better health, a cleaner environment, climate change mitigation, and inclusive cities.
“By prioritising pedestrian rights, we must address a plethora of pressing challenges and create a future where every step taken on foot leads to a more sustainable, equitable, and healthier nation for all,” he told Mongabay India.
Banner image: Pedestrians crossing a highway in Mohali. Punjab has decided to enforce people’s right to walk in May this year. Photo by Biswarup Ganguli/Wikimedia Commons.