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25.01.2018

It’s a sunny Saturday in Bangalore for a rally at Richmond Circle. The group organising it is called Citizens for Bengaluru, which rallied against the controversial steel flyover proposal last year, and has, for the moment, swapped out #SteelFlyoverBeda - ‘beda’ is DNW in Kannada - for something they do want: a walk signal at crossings to help pedestrians navigate our terrifying roads.

Treacherously, this writer, eager to be on time, took an Uber to Richmond Circle, and was dropped 400m away from the spot. We know Richmond Circle well from a bus; on foot, we’re a less sure. We make inquiries and a few people ask, as they do, where exactly we want to go. The circle itself, we insist: there’s something happening at the signal itself. We’re in a hurry; an inner cynic is worrying, quietly, that there’ll be maybe five people there.

But it’s a hefty, noticeable contingent, carrying signs in Kannada and English, ranging from the straightforward to the witty. (To wit, one elderly gentleman’s sign: “We taught you how to walk - now allow us to walk safely!!”)

The origin story of #NadiyaluBidi (the other hashtag, meaning “Let Us Walk”) goes something like this: In October, Citizens for Bengaluru (CfB) held a “beku beda santhe,” a “festival of desired and undesirable things,” roughly translated. The demand for better walkability came first, and accordingly occupied first place on their agenda. Now, their demands are specific: they want to stop skywalks - which often involve flights and flights of stairs, and are deeply unfriendly to the elderly and people with disabilities, among others - and install better walk signals, with pedestrian-friendly walk timings.

The choice of Richmond Circle seems apt: somewhat central, ever-busy, the junction of between eight and ten roads, depending on who’s counting. Crossing from one end to another requires fortitude, and can take anything upwards of ten minutes.

But walking in most parts of Bangalore is hardly simple. Where footpaths exist, they can be obstructed by construction material, dog poop, garbage, or encroachments. Makeshift stones give way easily. (No, we didn’t recently sprain an ankle tripping over a pothole on a poorly-lit Lloyd Road, why do you ask?) If you’re of a slightly nervous temperament, the cacophony of cars and bikes is enough to turn it into a horror movie; whose life flash hasn’t flashed past their terrified eyes while crossing at Forum in Koramangala? Walk signals and ample pedestrian walkways, like the one opposite Garuda Mall, feel positively luxurious.

For Devi Meenakshi, a member of the group, this is a good-enough starting point. “Let’s at least start with the pedestrians,” she says, insisting that pedestrians should be taken into account at the planning level. “You’re almost promoting motor vehicles over using your own legs.” Walk signals that last for more than 10 seconds - that’s the dream (the demand, in this case).

Srinivas Alavalli, one organiser, says we all need to be trained athletes to make our way across city roads; that’s why part of the demo includes chest numbers, as in a race. We realise it’s effective performance art as much as demonstration when loud cheers erupt as we amble across the signal.

But at whom is the demonstration targeted? Richmond Circle is a busy signal, not the hub for local policymakers. However, Citizens for Bengaluru promise that they are lodging a formal set of demands with the Additional Commissioner of Police.

We sneak in a moment with Radha, a wheelchair user and an administrator at the Association for People with Disability, who’s come to the event from her home in Lingarajapuram, East Bangalore. Between chants of “beke beku/walk signal beku,” she tells us that she craves being able to move around freely, and that the challenges of people like her need to be understood: she relies, she feels, far too often on kindly passersby to help her cross the road. “We also have lives, and we want to lead them independently,” she says.

For millions in Bangalore, walking - even from an Uber to the nearest traffic signal - is about doing our best to be super-nimble and trusting in motorists’ innate goodness. The push for public transport and walkable roads is something seemingly innocuous - and yet, given the times we live in, ends up being a radical position, with its implications for the state’s subsidisation of privately owned vehicles. That whole thing about critical mass means something else when it’s a contingent of pedestrians.

Getting there: To know more or get involved with #NadiyaluBidi, see the Citizens for Bengaluru page.

Neha Margosa lives and works in Bangalore. She tweets at @neha_margosa, and is working on the forthcoming Ooru podcast about life in Bangalore.

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