My city, my road, my right, say Gurgaon residents

Raahgiri Day, a slice of Sunday mornings that gives Gurgaon residents the right to troop out and enjoy on an otherwise busy stretch, is a platform to quench their thirst for civic engagement

srishti

Srishti Pandey | January 25, 2014


Raahgiri Day is organised in Gurgaon on every Sunday from 7 am to 12 noon.
Srishti Pandey

The rapid transformation from traditional homes to swanky apartments, from joint to nuclear families, and from large open public spaces to hot-selling plots in Indian cities are all considered signs of development. In effect, though, they have left our cities socially dead.

Concretisation of cities and isolation of individuals due to skewed work-life balance are the major contributors to cities becoming lifeless and an epitome of monotony.

So what happens if the authorities, in their blind pursuit to commercialise every bit of space in cities, forget the need to provide adequate avenues for civic engagement?

In a slice of Gurgaon, the uber-urbanised spot on Delhi’s outskirts, the residents are providing the answer. They have now decided to give the malls and movies a miss and hit the roads instead in a bid to reclaim it for their recreation.

In a carnival-like setting, Gurgaon residents are coming out in large numbers to be a part of ‘Raahgiri Day’ – the new buzzword in the millennium city.
Raahgiri is a weekly street event that provides citizens the opportunity to “reclaim the streets, connect with the community, and celebrate the city”, as its tagline suggests.

Starting November 17, Raahgiri is held every Sunday on a 4.5 km stretch of road. The route is a loop that starts and ends near Hotel Park Plaza, and passes through Vyapar Kendra, Super Mart 1 and Galleria road. Between 7 am and noon the entire stretch is cordoned off for vehicles, which are diverted to service lanes along the stretch. During this period, people are free to walk, cycle, skate or watch and participate in various activities held as part of the event, including yoga, zumba, street plays, music performances and artwork, among others.

Organised by students and teachers of The Heritage School in Gurgaon along with a few citizen groups and NGOs – including Embarq India, Pedal Yatris, IamGurgaon, Duplays, NMT activists with the help of civic authorities – Raahgiri has been able to help people break the glass wall and come out and engage with the community.

Amid growth of commercialised sources of entertainment that are like any other commodity – costly and scarce – the weekly event comes as a welcome break. Launched on the model of Ciclovia, which started in Bogota, Colombia in 1976, to demand better infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists from the authorities in a non-coercive manner, the event has turned out to become a healthier, cheaper, and a more socially integrating source of a weekend outing for people from diverse age and economic backgrounds to relax and enjoy a day out. Quite literally.

Claiming my space

GN Tiwary, a retired engineer from Tata Steel and one of the earliest to arrive at the venue [Governance Now visited the event on December 8], says, the event is nothing short of a “spectacle”. “I have been living in this city for the last 20 years – what started out as a jungle, with hardly any facilities and few people, has turned into a concrete one now,” the 80-year-old says. “The rise in population in the city has been directly proportional to the distance between people who have centred their work, leisure, and everything else only around themselves and their immediate families.

“This event is helping undo that damage we have done to ourselves as a society,” he says.

Pointing at the lack of public spaces in Gurgaon, Tiwary says it was a good idea for people to create their own space without having to depend entirely on the authorities. That, he says, would have resulted in an endless wait. “Walking, jogging, cycling, skating or simply standing and chit-chatting on such a long stretch in a bustling city like Gurgaon, without having to hear the endless honking or fear being hit by impatient drivers and riders, is unbelievable. It’s a miracle in itself!” Tiwary exclaims.

Another resident, Gurbachan Singh, 73, is amazed at how the event has helped people shed their inhibitions and reservations about approaching newer people and networking. “I stayed in Meerut for most of my life where it seemed everyone knew everyone else. Moving to Gurgaon, thus, was a culture shock – people wouldn’t even talk to their neighbours and civic engagement is zilch,” he says. “But this event seems promising and I hope it will help overcome this issue because it is important to remember that man is a social animal; so the lower his interaction with the society, the greater the chances of dying out.”

Ask him about the most exciting part about the event, and pat comes the reply: looking at the delight on children’s faces because of the “freedom of space they get”.

With sedentary lifestyles becoming the norm, for most people the event ensures that little bit of “physical activity”. “I come here for my little daughter,” says Shruti, 30, who works as a manager with a software company, “because it is important for her to stay around people. That is very important for her personality development because she’ll learn a lot from the other kids here. We have isolated ourselves so much that communication is very restricted. Thanks to her, I get a chance to do some exercising, meet new people and talk to them. It’s a welcome shift away from the confines of a mall or the movies or spending so much time and effort going to an amusement park.”

During the event, children easily qualify as the happiest lot. With a variety of options to play freely, run around, do some Zumba, ride a bicycle, skate, catch up with friends doing similar things – and all this without being bothered by parents to return home quickly – is the “perfect” start, or end, to another hectic week, they say.

Satvik, a student of class VI at a private school, says he loves to skate but hardly gets enough of it during the week. “I do a little bit of skating in school but it is not possible in the society where I live because of the constant movement of vehicles and the numerous speed-breakers,” he says. “The road is wider and smoother here (at the Raahgiri venue) and I don’t have to watch out for speeding vehicles. My parents are also here and we all get a chance to do our own things because there is nothing to worry about.”

Authorities buoyed by success

The popularity of the event among the citizens in and around the area can be gauged from the steadily rising footfall, the organisers say. “The response has been tremendous. The footfall has been increasing by 20-25 percent every week – in fact, on December 22 it was as high as 15,000-17,000 – as more people are getting to know about the event,” says Sarika Panda Bhatt, an urban planner with Embarq India, one of the main organisers of Raahgiri Day.

“In a newly developed city like Gurgaon, people have no space to enjoy with family and friends, so this event has provided that much-needed space to the residents living in this concrete jungle,” Bhatt says. “But we need to keep in mind the final objective of keeping the pressure up on authorities to provide better infrastructure facilities for pedestrians and cyclists without delay.”

Rejoicing at the response received, Gurgaon police commissioner Alok Mittal says the event has not only made an impression on the residents of Gurgaon but has also generated interest in other cities. “Many have taken notice of this development. Officials from cities like Bangalore, among others, have attended the event and interacted with us to introduce something similar in their cities,” he says.

Attributing the event’s success to its proper planning, Mittal says, “Between 75 and 100 police personnel, including traffic cops, have been deployed because there are many points along the 4.5 km stretch so as to avoid any kind of confusion and mishaps. In this way the people are assured about their safety.”

However, he clarifies that more than anything else his interest in the initiative is the chance he gets to interact with citizens in an informal setting. “There is a very visible change in the way people talk to us when we are not in our uniforms,” the police chief says. “They are a lot more open and come up to us to freely discuss issues. While receiving feedback from them helps us review our own processes, we also get a chance to communicate our programmes and ideas to them.”

Attraction to new and innovative ideas is a common human tendency and getting restless and bored equally soon is also a fact. Ask the organisers if they have taken the boredom factor into account, Mittal chuckles: “That risk is definitely there but we still have time for that. We have only started and the rate and manner in which things are progressing, it will be the residents who will take up the job to sustain the momentum. They will need our support only to facilitate their ideas.”

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