Written specially for Vikalp Sangam
Walking is part of the culture of Shimla which is one of the oldest ‘car-free’ towns in the world. Britishers had declared the long stretch of over ten kilometers as vehicle free zone where only horse riders and hand-pulled or cycle rickshaws were permitted. Over the years, the expansion and ‘development’ of Shimla has flooded the streets with cars, including the vehicles of the government departments. Instead of pushing for restriction on vehicular movement, the government has ironically approved a marginal, two-and-a-half feet pedestrian hanging path along the stretch which was earlier car-free.
Happy Hikers is a collective of hiking-enthusiasts, ecologists and public intellectuals based in Shimla who have come forward and resolved to sensitize the people in Shimla about the car-free heritage of the historic town so that they could learn from the previous generations about importance of car-free streets in leading an active, healthy life.
With the assistance from Sustainable Urban Mobility Network (SUM Net), the collective succeeded in reclaiming The Mall, the pedestrian artery of the city and the focal point of social life, where a ‘paidal tehjeeb’ (culture of walking) peculiar to Shimla has developed since colonial times. This heritage walk is nearly 8 kilometer-long, starting from the Gate of the Vice Regal Lodge (now Indian Institute of Advanced Studies) and ends at Chhota Shimla. On both ends of the stretch, one can see glorious views of the valleys and distant perennial snow-laden mountains. The Mall is now perhaps the longest pedestrian-only street in the world with shops, restaurants, hotels and heritage buildings.
To achieve this, the team created Shimla Pedestrian Forum and carried out a systematic, grassroots survey of the entire stretch. They drew a plan and held discussions with residents of the city. Afterwards, they modified the plan according to the feedback and started thinking of how to execute the project. The team started making person-to-person contacts with residents of all backgrounds and occupations, including local politicians, intellectuals, government officials, and students. Unsurprisingly, the majority of the residents supported the plan to restore the legacy of a car-free town in order to save Shimla from pollution, congestion and deterioration of quality of life. The team met the Deputy Commissioner and Superintendent of Police of Shimla district, and Commissioner, Shimla Municipal Corporation to apprise of the people’s plan for car-free Shimla and to request them to include the same in any future plans for the city. Fortunately, the activities of the pedestrian forum received good coverage in local media which further amplified the demand to keep Shimla car-free. Final blow to the attempts seeking removal of restrictions came from the High Court which directed the administration to adhere to the old traffic restriction laws. Happy Hikers played crucial role in activating and transforming the civic sensibilities around the issue, and thereby, empowered the arguments favouring the car-free policy in the court.
The success of deliberation-oriented participatory approach in restoring the car-free legacy of Shimla deserves attention of citizen groups in other cities. During COVID, the pedestrianization and the culture of walking has been extremely beneficial for the residents to lead a safe public life with proper physical distancing. A developed culture of walking has raised the general immunity levels, which has been crucial in keeping the COVID infections low so far. In such critical times, Happy Hikers and Shimla Pedestrian Forum have also become the spaces to think about the alternative developmental trajectories for the city keeping in view the rich traditions, cultural heritage and physical environment of the hill state capital.
Read an older article on this subject,
which echoes the sentiment ‘Why should sealed roads be allowed to be used by only high-up officials, politicians, and judges?’ and contains the lines: ‘The demand should be to forbid even the above privileged sections from using these spaces, and that these roads should be used (by vehicles) only for emergency purposes. There are a whole lot of people who walk on these roads as these are the only spaces that are the ‘urban commons’ for Shimla’s pedestrians.’