This International Women’s Day is extra special for Gurgaon resident Sarika Panda Bhatt, who is widely recognised as the co-founder of Raahgiri Day, an open street campaign that started in the Millennium City six years back, and since then has spread to over 70 cities.
Forty-one-year-old Sarika, a resident of Malibu Town in Sector 47, has made it to the list of 40 “remarkable women in transport around the world,” an initiative driven by Germany-based Transformative Urban Mobility Initiative (TUMI). The recognition is given to women from across the world who have taken initiatives to increase the development of sustainable urban transport.
“It’s a huge honour for me as the transport industry has traditionally been a man’s bastion. And to get recognized here along with big names from across the world is a huge achievement,” said an ecstatic Sarika. “I feel proud to say that I’m one of the 40 women that have been selected from a list of 176 countries.”
Sarika has been working in the field of developing sustainable transport system for the past 15 years. She heads the integrated transport and road safety initiative at WRI India, a global research organisation.
But her work in the fields of public transport and self mobility have earned her the reputation of a “crusader.”
Six years back, the Millennium City, which loves to flaunt its fleet of expensive cars, woke up to the idea of Raahgiri. As a co-founder, Sarika, along with her team, ensured that at least for one day the streets that are otherwise reserved for vehicles became fully pedestrianized. It urged the residents to use the streets for walking, cycling, sports and other activities.
“I had shifted to Gurgaon from Delhi about eight years back. I didn’t know driving and there was no public transport back then. But that did not stop me from exploring the city. I bought a bicycle and went about with my daily activities. But Gurgaon is not a cycle- or pedestrian-friendly city. That’s when I decided to become a voice for this section,” remembers Sarika.
Talking about how the transport situation in Gurgaon is different from other popular cities across the world, Sarika says, “I strongly believe that a city needs to move people and not vehicles. But the situation here points otherwise. Everywhere around the world cities are designed in a way that there is ample space for motorists, pedestrians and cyclists. But Gurgaon is a completely unplanned city with no footpaths and cycle tracks. However, if provided with better infrastructure, there will be a huge population walking or cycling here.”
From starting Raahgiri, Sarika has come a long way and spearheaded several campaigns. She was a convenor of Gurgaon’s Car Free Day initiative. She also leads “India Vision Zero” campaign in Haryana and Punjab, which aims to reduce road accidents.
“The need to develop sustainable transport couldn’t be more stressed upon now when our city has been ranked the world’s most polluted city. Let’s face it. The huge number of vehicles in the city are actually choking it,” said this worried.
Though developing public infrastructure is the only way out of this mess, Sarika feels that the residents also can’t shun their responsibilities. “Every other household here owns more than one car, some even three to four. It’s high time these people step out of their comfort zones and do something to change the situation. Let’s walk, cycle and use public transport as much as we can,” advises Sarika.
Queried about the biggest challenges she has faced in her journey so far, Sarika quickly retorts, “It’s the attitude of the people, anywhere, anyplace. I have faced resistance from policy makers, residents, friends. No one wants to step out of their comfort zone and do something for the betterment of the society.”
So, what’s the way forward? “This honour has given me immense encouragement. My aim is to get more and more women involved in this field. We need to have more women leaders in this sector, as that’s the only way that we can change people’s attitude,” she suggests.
And why not? In most households owing one car, the man uses the vehicle to get to his work and the woman is dependent on public transport – to get to work or to do her daily chores. “Not only sustainable, we need to make our transport safe and secure for women. Hopefully, one day Gurgaon will have a safe public transport available 24X7. Amen!”