Vijay Hingorani is suing the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation for Rs 1.5 crores. Hingorani is currently laid up in bed with a broken leg after he slipped into a half-open manhole on Carter Road in Bandra one evening at the end of November.

“I wasn’t even walking on the road, I was walking on the pavement," he said. "They spend so much money every year on these pavements – doing it, redoing it, tiling it, breaking it. They are either making the roads or breaking them."

The accident has not only been painful but has also cost Hingorani a new job. The business strategist was set to move to Bangalore to start working with a multinational company from January 1. He is now staring at a recovery of at least six months and says his only next move is to get back on his feet and start walking.

But Hingorani is also a rare example of a citizen ready to battle the civic authorities for damage caused by their negligence. Rishi Agarwal, civic activist and co-founder of Mumbai’s The Walking Project wishes more people would sue the city authority.

Taking the case to the corporation

“If everyone starts suing the municipal corporation for every minor accident that they have, the municipal corporation will go bankrupt,” said Agarwal. “It will be great if 10,000 citizens do it because then the corporation will realise that the cost of providing pedestrian infrastructure which is safe is minuscule compared to the amount they are being sued for and immediately they will do it.”

Agarwal and his team are currently surveying stretches of road in Mumbai’s Andheri East neighbourhood for pedestrian friendliness and the results are far from encouraging.

On seven arterial roads with a total length of almost 50 kilometers and corresponding footpaths of 100 kilometers, The Walking Project has found that there are no continuous stretches conducive for safe walking. The width of the pavements is inadequate at less than 1.5 meters and they are encroached upon by other structures and poorly lit. “This is almost the new central business district of Mumbai with some 1 lakh employees. It is an economic growth centre of the country,” Agarwal pointed out.

It’s a story repeated across India’s metros. In Bangalore, a street quality survey by the NGO Janaagraha showed that along about 3,300 kilometers of road there were 23,343 stretches of footpath that were unwalkable because of obstructions like transformers and advertising hoardings. More than 3,000 of these obstructions were broken or missing footpath slabs leaving gaping holes for pedestrians to fall into.

“It is very dangerous for pedestrians and people [using the roads],” said Srikant Viswanathan, coordinator for advocacy and reforms at Janaagraha, citing an example of next-to-impossible pedestrian crossings. “We found that only about 8% of intersections in the city have pedestrian crossings which means that 92% of cases when people want to cross the road it is unsafe.”

A fundamental right

Less than a year ago, the Bombay High Court issued a landmark interim order stating that good roads are a fundamental right of citizens. The court not only stated that it was the mandatory duty of municipal corporations to maintain and improve the public streets and remove obstructions from public streets, including footpaths, but also that a citizen could demand compensation apart from seeking the enforcement of the right, if there is any infringement of such a fundamental right.

Unfortunately, municipal officials across India’s metros seem to respond only to strong-arm tactics on issues of road safety. Residents of Balaji Layout off Bangalore’s Kanakpura Road have resorted to putting up their own signboards warning people of potholes and open manholes. The signs, very helpfully, carry the contact details of officials from the Bangalore Development Authority, should any injured or inconvenienced commuters wish to complain.

“The road condition is so bad that two-wheelers trying to avoid potholes go and hit the manholes,” said VK Srivatsa, president of the neighbourhood resident welfare association. “When we talk to officials they don’t take it seriously. For almost a year we have been following up with them on the state of the roads but they haven’t bothered about it.”

“When someone told the engineers that there was a board like this they immediately rushed to the spot but even before starting the repair work on the road they removed the board,” he added.

Killer potholes

Bangalore's ubiquitous potholes have inspired pothole art and numerous pothole jokes. But a new study has shown that is takes bumping over only six potholes to damage a persons spine. According to an economic analysis, taking into account the amount of time it takes to navigate potholes and the traffic jams they cause and medical costs from the bodily harm they cause, each pothole costs Rs 1,185 per day – a cost of Rs 4.74 lakh per day for Bangalore's 4,000 potholes.

But Bangalore's potholes kill and there's nothing funny about that. In September, a software engineer in Bangalore skidded on his two-wheeler while trying to avoid a pothole. His wife who was on the pillion, fell, hit her head on the road and died a short while later. Ironically, police registered a case against the man for negligent driving.

Bangalore has a long and dubious list of fatal accidents in recent years caused when the vehicles they were in encountered potholes. At least three instances are of children being killed after falling of the two-wheelers they were on only to be knocked down by the vehicle behind.

“Why is everybody silent? People lose their lives,” said Hingorani about why he is pursuing his legal case against the Mumbai corporation. “Definitely, I would like my due compensation and I would like more people to take a stand.”