Delhi has over three million people who use the Delhi Metro every day and many more who use a combination of Indian Railway trains and a variety of buses. Mumbai has about seven and a half million people who use the local trains and many more who use buses. Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata, Bengaluru, Ahmedabad, Raipur, Chandigarh, Lucknow and other cities have their train and bus passengers too.
Across India, commuters and people who use public transport share one common experience—somebody has stolen their pavements! At first, it was just a few feet of the pavement with mats strewn across; now you can see full-on wonders of civil construction on not just pavements but also pedestrian overbridges and underpasses and even in the verge dividing roads. At many places, the road itself has been usurped, and pedestrians as well as all sorts of motor vehicles vie for the same space. I have even seen a sturdy wall with multiple commercial platforms cantilevered on both sides of the wall. The wall was initially built to prevent people from building shops on the pavement it cordoned off.
If people whose pavements have been stolen were a single constituency, they would simply be the largest constituency in India. However, since pedestrians in India come from a class which is always in a hurry to go somewhere or return from somewhere, they simply do not get together as a major motive force. And there is absolutely no civic body, elected or selected representative, or regulatory body, which is in charge of pedestrians. There is no, for example, "National Pedestrian Authority of India" or equivalent.
Pedestrians are on their own, literally and figuratively, and if they die—they don't even become a statistic. Because, and this is the reality—they usually die on roads. So then, they become part of deaths by automobile.
And then we get to where pavements have become parking lots, generating a separate economy, leading to the question: Why road tax? Nobody can answer this question.
Special 'clearance' drives are undertaken now and then, long articles appear in the media quoting our elected and selected representatives, debates for and against becomes very emotive. Automobile manufacturers wonder why sales are down - but are unable to find parking space within their own showrooms for new cars and bikes, which, in turn, occupy more pavement space.
There is no other country of comparable circumstances to India where stealing pavements is such an ongoing art form. Large corporate houses have also got into the game—inspect the bar coded slips being handed out for 'parking charges' and you will spot some of our best and oldest corporates taking part in the game of pavement grabbing.
So how does this actually work?
First big elephant in the room—the actual onsite pavement grabbing, and the bottom of the pyramid guys who actually are visible, such as hawkers, goons, attendants, or similar—are simply not the reason for, and key stakeholders of the pavement stealing game.
The second big elephant in the country—pavement grabbing is among the biggest local industries for a wide variety of sarkari sansthas and their cohorts. In many jurisdictions, the pavement grabbing industry is the most lucrative industry going, because it also includes the narcotics, flesh, gambling and all other really illegal industries.
Let me try to give the example of a typical pavement in a typical Municipal Corporation of Delhi area.
A pavement is usually grabbed and stolen under the kind supervision of the very same authorities who are supposed to ensure it is in good shape and is used by pedestrians. Try to set up a small stall selling anything and see the 'settings' that come into play. There is usually a master controller goon who collects on behalf of all the authorities involved and typically will have his, or often her site, office very close to an ATM and cash deposit machine. Liquidity is all important and so is transfer of funds.
A typical pavement grab will have optimal utilisation 100% of the time, 24x7. Starting from early morning, when the rag-pickers have the first rights pre-dawn, then the cleaning crew who are usually in a hurry to finish before the day's commerce begins, to late evening when the denizens of the night ply their oldest trade. Holidays can see temporary 'haats' and if there is a booze shop nearby, then the kababs become famous, even if the stray dogs and cats start to vanish.
If a concerned citizen tries to file an online complaint to the government of the national capital territory of Delhi about a pavement that has been stolen, using the public grievances portal, it will get bounced around to a variety of authorities including but not limited to the Delhi government, Central Public Works Department, Delhi Development Authority, Delhi Jal Board, Municipal Corporation of Delhi, and sometimes even the office of the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi. I may have missed out sanitation department, anti-malaria, education and others, for which I am truly sorry. Eventually, an answer will reach the person who made the grievance with the explanation that the pavement in question is and was not in their jurisdiction.
How can the pavement be in anybody's jurisdiction? It has already been stolen.