New Delhi traffic is nuts. Here’s what happened when it briefly banned cars.

August 28, 2014

Two men take a break during a yoga class on the usually busy inner circle road of Connaught Place in New Delhi, on a day called Raahgiri Day, which is a car-free citizen initiative. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

For residents of this traffic-clogged capital, jogging, cycling and even crossing the road can be a death-defying feat. In fact, in recent days, several homeless people sleeping on the pavement were run over by drunk drivers.

But people are taking back the streets. Literally. They call the initiative Raahgiri, Hindi slang for being the “boss of the road.” It’s a new campaign that bans automobiles in the heart of the city for a few hours every Sunday.

In the past few weeks, thousands of residents have poured into the circular British-era colonnaded district called Connaught Place to walk, jog, dance, skip, cycle, roller-skate, lift weights, and do yoga and aerobics outdoors. They play cricket, badminton and volleyball; tell jokes, sing and enact street plays. Women are given self-defense tips.


Hundreds of people dance to modern Hindi pop music played at one of the main stages in Connaught Place. (Enrico Fabian/For The Washington Post)

Starved of open spaces and playgrounds and bursting with vehicles, the city also lacks sufficient sidewalks, which are often crumbling.

“Here, we don’t worry about rash traffic or about keeping an eye on our son every minute when he plays,” said Kanupreiya Gupta, 33, a participant in the event.

A sign nearby said: “Breath in. Break Out.”

A yoga instructor spoke to her group: “For acidity, do this — as you inhale, raise your legs, point toe upward.”


Women from the Central Reserve Police demonstrate self-defense methods on one of the stages during Raahgiri day in Connaught Place. (Enrico Fabian)

More than 130,000 people died in road traffic accidents in India last year, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. About half of those killed were cyclists or pedestrians.

“Instead of pleading for the rights of pedestrians and cyclists, we are laying claim to the streets in a rebellious way,” said Amit Bhatt, an urban transport expert at Embarq India, an initiative of the Washington-based World Re­sources Institute, and a partner in managing the Raahgiri program.

“Many said they are less aggressive when they drive now and mindful of cyclists and walkers,” Bhatt said.

Over the next year, Raahgiri is set to expand to other cities.


A boy jumps on a pogo stick on the usually busy inner circle road of Connaught Place in New Delhi. (Enrico Fabian)

“Claustrophobia and chaos now define our urban spaces,” said Rahul Kansal, executive president of the Times of India newspaper, another Raahgiri partner. “These are streets that people are afraid to even cross because it is all such a mad shove and push in our cities, and now they occupy and dominate them.”

What has Raahgiri replaced on Sunday mornings?

“Lethargy, over­sleeping, TV, high-calorie brunch,” laughed Gupta.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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