Watch the footpaths in your city. If you are in Bangalore, you will very likely ask, “What footpath?” And you would be quite right to do so. Over the past two decades or so, our cities have rapidly become hostile to pedestrians (from Latin pedester, on foot).

Watch whether or not people hold doors open for those behind them, while entering a building or room; where people park; where people drive; and so on. Every one of these can be geographically very informative.

In your geography class (depending on which standard you are in), you may have studied about the concept of development. Ideally, economic development is only a part of the larger process of development. Development should include not only economic, but social, psychological, and other betterments of life – not just for humans, but for other life-forms as well, in such a way that this betterment can continue far into the future. It must also reach everyone. This is all-round sustainable development.

Unfortunately, in India (and in many other countries), economic development is seen as the only form of development. People, environment, ethics, etc. matter less, if at all. And economic development has come to mean having more and more vehicles on the road, more and more consumption of material goods, etc. In short, a lot of output of carbon and other materials that are causing drastic changes in our environment. These are leading to pollution, accelerated climate change, and many illnesses.

In the middle of this mad rush towards economic development, vast numbers of people’s geographical, or spatial, rights are being violated. If we are to be a civilized, democratic, equitable society, our development cannot ignore geographical rights of people. This includes a wide variety of people in an equally wide variety of circumstances.

I conduct a workshop for school students. It is called “The depth of distance in geography.” In this, I ask participants to cover the distance between two points on their campus. I make this as complex or long as the situation permits. I ask the students to observe: the method they chose to cover the distance (some students have even done cart-wheels!), the time taken to cover the distance, measure the distance in any unit they like (I don’t give them any scales or measurement aids), etc. When they return, we discuss the journey they just undertook. After all the measurements etc. are done, I ask them to examine how they felt covering that distance. Usually, the feeling part of it does not go beyond things such as “easy”, “hard”, “tiring”, and such.

Then, I offer them a bowl that has many pieces of paper, each folded into a small chunk. I ask them to pick one. Each paper has a role they have to play – e.g.: “You are from the wrong caste, you are not allowed to walk on soil”, “You have had polio and your left leg is not usable, only your right leg is usable”, “You have only one leg and can only hop on the other one”, “You are a woman and you are allowed to walk only backwards”, “You are blind and you are entirely dependent on your partner’s guidance to go anywhere”, and so on. Then, they have to cover the same route and same distance but with those limitations.

This time, they observe only the time it takes and the experience. When they return, we all discuss how it felt to be limited by these things when they had to complete their journey. This, then, leads us to a good discussion of human rights and geographical rights, and how geography and social justice issues are intimately connected.

Looking around us, especially in cities, we can easily see how vehicles are given priority at the expense of pedestrians. Footpaths are encroached, traffic signals for pedestrian crossings are green for very very short periods of time, drivers do not stop even at the zebra crossings, and so on. In many places the footpaths exist only as tokens. (I have used footpaths that are only 1½ to 2 feet wide, pedestrians walking in both directions, and high-speed traffic on the road next to it. You must be very agile to use Bangalore’s footpaths!)

A person’s geographic mobility depends on a number of things: age, physical ability, social and economic status, gender, general health, etc. The current model of development that makes vehicle movement a priority ignores pedstrians’ geographical needs.

How many times have you seen people riding two-wheelers on the foot-path, honking at pedestrians who are walking there? The traffic police occasionally announce a “crack-down” on such behaviour, but these do not last very long. Most violators also get away by bribing the police or with the “Do you know who I am?” strategy. Almost all violators appear to be reasonably schooled people (though evidently not educated!).

However, as citizens (the Samskrtam word is naagariika which also means ‘civilized’) we have a duty to observe our spatial responsibilities while claiming our spatial rights. Rights cannot be exercised without the corresponding responsibilities. This means that in every aspect of our life, we should be mindful of the spatial rights of everyone around us. This is not just in traffic but in every aspect of life.

So, the next time when you get up and offer your seat to an elderly person, a pregnant woman, or someone carrying a child; you stop your vehicle to allow someone to cross the road; you open a door for a person with a disability to enter a building; you help someone cross a dangerously busy street; you intervene on behalf of someone whose spatial rights are being denied … notice your own humanity.

That is the best application of your geographical learning. That is how you learn and apply geography the discipline – this is much more than geography the subject you learn from your textbook.

 

Things you can do:

  1. Watch a video on the spatial rights of a person who is both poor and physically challenged (http://bit.ly/12NAYGQ).
  2. In your own neighborhood, observe, record, and map locations where spatial rights of people are denied or even weakened. Remember, these include a lot more than physical disabilities.
  3. Share your report with the local police officials. In some way document the fact that you have reported to them, the date, etc. and try to follow up on what action they have taken. Do not be intimidated by adults. It is our job to listen to you and work with you.
  4. In your own home and school, become aware of ways in which spatial rights of people can be improved and how awareness of these can be raised among people around you.
  5. Read the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Which of these are you able to connect to geographical rights? How?

(A version of this article appeared in the Deccan Herald Student Edition on 21 August 2014.)

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