Where the sidewalk ends

A version of the following appears in the Sunday edition of the Vijaya Karnataka, the state's largest Kannada language newspaper, with a readership of four million. 

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Near where I stay in Indira Nagar, on 100 Feet Road, stands a shiny new Starbucks. Inside, customers are treated to air-conditioning, plush seating, free wifi, and, of course, coffee. I suppose I could sit back in comfort, just knowing that Starbucks in Bangalore is a sign—finally—of economic progress and development. But I’ve been here before, many times before, dating back to January of 2006, and too much about the city rings familiar for me to join Bangalore’s legion of cheerleaders, foreign and domestic. 

I’ve spent a total of two and a half years living in Bangalore, traveling back and forth between here and the US carrying out a study on social mobility—or, more precisely, social immobility, but that’s another matter, for another day. In all this time, I’ve seen the introduction of private residences and malls, name brand clothing stores and restaurants, and Mercedes Benz dealerships, among other things bearing the faux-imprint of development. Still, it amazes me the state of the city’s public sidewalks, most of which remain cracked, uneven, strewn with filth and debris, in a word, impassable, even after all this time. This says more about the city, I think, and the interests of its political and economic elites, than the appearance of so many Starbucks, Brooks Brothers, or Nike stores.

It’s not that city officials lack the necessary technology or know-how to build sidewalks. And it’s not that they lack the political will, either, as so many pundits put it. No, it’s for lack of profits. There isn’t any money in making it safe and easy for ordinary citizens to get around. Indeed, there are many pucca sidewalks already in place throughout the city. They just happen to be tucked away in private gated communities and shopping complexes, where flat, smooth, contiguous sidewalks are just one of many perks. Venture out to Palm Meadows, in Whitefield, or UB City, near MG Road, or any number of other private enclaves, and you get the point. If you can’t afford to be in these spaces, say the politicians and the middle and upper classes they pander to, who undoubtedly live and work in them, then you have no right to these sidewalks, and maybe no right to the city at all. 

The public sidewalks in the city, or the absence of them, hardly trouble me a bit, I should say, at least as a practical matter. I get along just fine, walking wherever, whenever. But I’m also able-bodied, fortunately, and relatively young and fit. I do all right. This isn’t about me, then, and it may not even be about you, if you’re reading this and happen to be a resident, salaried employee, or shopper in these private spaces, and find it just as easy to get around as I do, or, more easily still, by way of car or bike.

It is, however, about the pregnant mother-to-be, the child, the senior, the blind, the disabled person on crutches or confined to a wheelchair. It’s about the city’s mass of poor and working people, more than anything, who roam about, set up shop, and, in many cases, live on these sidewalks. They alone, in plain sight, endure the constant risk of tripping and falling down, and, worse, into traffic, or else being swept aside by the newest Starbucks or some other physical manifestation dreamed up by an enterprising industrialist.  

In the end, the city’s sidewalks are just the surface, as it were, of a much larger problem. It’s not just public sidewalks that have been relegated to disrepair, after all. It’s infrastructure, more generally; garbage collection, sewage, and waste; rivers, lakes, and streams; schools and hospitals. Basically, anything untethered to market forces, without any immediate or longterm potential for profit, is left to ruin. It’s true in Bangalore; it’s true all over India, maybe all over the world.  

Indeed, on the question of public interests—really, public anything—India is a model. Everywhere, it seems, the world is turning its back on public space and the people who inhabit it. Even in the west, our sidewalks are crumbling, too, wouldn’t you know, and with them, just about everything else.

Of course, India wasn’t the first to annex public space, and it won’t be the last. But it is one of the most efficient, having never really invested all that much in the public to begin with. Now, with so little faith in government, if also too much hope in the private sector, we’re left to wonder about what comes next, in India and elsewhere. Not the end of history, certainly. Just the end of the sidewalk.