How Guwahati’s Pedestrian Bridges Are Saving Lives And Giving The City A Smart Look

Every time Junmoni Das takes the pedestrian overpass to cross the perennially busy GS Road at Khanapara in the eastern end of Guwahati, she shakes her head in regret.

Regret that the overpass, like similar dozen-odd ones in other parts of the city, came seven years too late.

It was a little over seven years ago, on the morning of 5 June 2016, that her husband Haren Das and her only child Jiten came under the wheels of a speeding bus and were crushed to death.

Haren was 36 at that time and Jiten was just nine years old. Like every morning, Haren was taking his son to Khanapara Government Junior Basic School, about a 13 minute walk from their modest residence.

“My husband and son left, as usual, a little after 7.30 am. After dropping Jiten off at his school, my husband was supposed to buy some vegetables and return home to get ready and leave for his office by 9.30 am. But when he did not return by 9 am, I started getting worried,” recalls Junmoni, 42.

“A little after 9 am, a person from the neighbourhood came running and told me my husband and son had met with an accident and had been taken to the Guwahati Medical College Hospital. I rushed there in an autorickshaw, and was told that both had died. I was shattered, and felt completely lost.

“I don’t remember anything after that. The next few weeks passed in a blur,” she recounts. “She cried till her tears dried up. And then she went numb for many days,” recalls Junmoni’s elder sister Maina.

Junmoni got her husband’s job at a state government establishment, and moved in with her elder sister Maina, who is married with two sons.

Junmoni Das (right, holding a bag) with her sister Maina on the Khanapara pedestrian footbridge. (Moon Mostaque)

Haren and Jiten were two of the estimated 3,000-odd persons who died while crossing the busy GS Road that stretches for 10 kilometres from Paltan Bazar, the city’s central business area, to Khanapara between 2001 and 2016.

That makes for a little over 16 deaths a month; quite a high number for just one road. Guwahati itself recorded an average of 300 deaths a year in road accidents during this period.

Most of these fatalities were of people crossing roads that did not have any pedestrian overpasses or zebra crossings.

Apart from the fatalities, an average of 220 people sustained injuries, mostly serious, in road accidents every year between 2001 and 2016 when the Tarun Gogoi-led Congress government was in power in the state. Once again, a majority of the injured were pedestrians trying to cross roads.

GS Road was built by the British to connect Guwahati to Shillong, which was the capital of the entire Assam province (which included most of the North East).

Old-timers say that traffic was minimal during the pre-Independence days and in the first couple of decades after 1947. But even so, this arterial road had zebra crossings for the safety of pedestrians.

But as the volume of traffic increased with each passing decade and the road was broadened periodically, no attention was paid to the needs and safety of pedestrians.

Pleas For Footbridges Fell On Deaf Ears

“It is amazing that for a wide, 10-kilometre long road as busy as this (GS Road), no one ever thought of building pedestrian overpasses or even marking zebra crossings. It was always terrible to see people darting between speeding vehicles to cross the road,” retired bureaucrat Debabrata Saikia told Swarajya.

Saikia, who had served in Delhi and some other states, wrote to the then chief minister Tarun Gogoi when he settled in Guwahati after retirement in 2010.

“I wrote to the chief minister underlining the need for pedestrian footbridges for the safety of people. I told him that all other cities have such footbridges and GS Road urgently needs at least 10 immediately. But I never got a reply and the government didn’t act on my suggestion either,” he laments.

When the BJP came to power in 2016, Saikia decided to revive his efforts. He wrote to then chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal sometime in August 2016 and received a reply within two weeks.

“The chief minister’s office informed me that plans were afoot to construct at least eight pedestrian overpasses on GS Road and a few more over other busy roads in the city over the next few years. The letter also stated that other measures, including traffic regulation, were  being taken to bring down road accidents to nil,” said Saikia.

But Saikia was not the only one who had been clamouring for pedestrian overpasses and zebra crossings, as well as better traffic management to minimise road accidents, for the past three to four decades.

Many prominent citizens of Guwahati, traffic management and road safety experts have been demanding construction of pedestrian footbridges over busy roads of the city. But successive governments in the state, mostly led by the Congress, never paid heed.

“We had also suggested many times that traffic police be given proper training in traffic management and more traffic signals should be installed in the roads to help pedestrians. But our suggestions had fallen on deaf ears,” Dipakankar Medhi, an engineer who also runs an NGO that helps victims of road accidents file insurance claims, told Swarajya.

How Things Changed After 2016

2016 brought about a change of government and, with it, a whole new mindset.

Sarbananda Sonowal, who became the chief minister in May that year, asked Public Works Department (PWD) Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma to start work on building pedestrian footbridges over GS Road and other busy roads in the capital city.

Sarma, of course, was well aware of the deaths and injuries caused to pedestrians while crossing busy roads since he had been a member of Tarun Gogoi’s cabinet.

“I knew of this grave issue and the terrible risks pedestrians were taking to cross roads everyday, and the deaths and injuries as a result of that. Once I got the PWD portfolio in 2016, I asked the department to start work on this immediately,” Sarma told Swarajya.

But the pedestrian footbridges, thought Sarma, should not only be utilitarian but also well-designed and very user-friendly.

The department, under his directives, invited innovative designs for the proposed footbridges. “I insisted that the designs should not only be modern and pleasing to the eye, but should also reflect Assam’s culture and heritage,” said Sarma.

After the designs were finalised, tenders were called and contracts awarded for the footbridges. There were some unforeseen delays in this process as a result of which the start of construction works was delayed.

“We also decided to install elevators and escalators at the footbridges for the benefit of elderly and ailing people as well as the physically challenged. So we had to tweak the designs to include installation of elevators, escalators and ramps. The costs also went up a lot and we had to get fresh financial sanction. All these took time,” said Sarma.

But once construction of the footbridges started, work continued at a very fast pace and most of the 10 that have been constructed on GS Road till now were completed much ahead of schedule.

The one at Ganeshguri, which was inaugurated by Sarbananda Sonowal in October 2020, was completed in 19 months against the targeted 30 months.

That feat is more laudable considering the fact that everything came to a standstill for months during the Covid-induced shutdowns in 2020 and 2021.

“We did not allow the pandemic to derail the plans. We were determined to make these facilities available to the public as soon as possible and so we continued to work in mission mode,” Sarma told Swarajya.

Today, Guwahati has 14 pedestrian footbridges and four more are under construction. By 2026, says Chief Minister Sarma, the city will have about 20 pedestrian overpasses and underpasses.

The swanky flyovers, apart from having escalators, elevators and ramps, are also aesthetic and visually appealing. Most of them showcase Assam’s culture and heritage.

Some, like the one at Khanapara, have become iconic that the city proudly showcases. The Khanapara overpass uses bamboo, which grows abundantly in Assam, in a visually appealing way.

So does the one at Sukreswar. Another one at Bharalumukh sports big replicas of the Assamese xorai and presents a grand spectacle.

Images of these swanky footbridges are shared proudly by citizens of Guwahati on social media and some have even become ‘insta-worthy selfie points’.

The footbridge at Sukreshwar in Guwahati
The footbridge at Sukreshwar in Guwahati (Guwahati City/Facebook)
The footbridge at Bharalumukh in Guwahati (Facebook)
The Khanapara pedestrian footbridge (Moon Mostaque)

Assam’s Urban Affairs Minister Ashok Singhal says that all public infrastructure in the state will be made visually appealing and will reflect the heritage and culture of Assam.

What’s more, the Chief Minister insists on good maintenance and upkeep of these facilities; as a result, all of them are sparkling clean.

Figures Speak For Themselves

The results of these pedestrian footbridges is evident from traffic statistics. From 2020, when the first pedestrian overpasses were opened to the public for use, the number of deaths and injuries due to road accidents has fallen drastically.

In 2021, 14 pedestrians died in road accidents on GS Road. The number fell to 12 in 2022. “We want to bring this number down to zero. We are conducting awareness drives and urging people to use pedestrian overpasses,” said Chief Minister Sarma.

Even one death in a road accident is a death too many, says Sarma. “We will construct more overpasses, install more traffic signals and make traffic management more efficient to ensure our roads become completely hazard-free,” he said.

Junmoni Das makes it a point to take the Khanapara footbridge to cross the GS Road everyday. And every time she does so, she wishes that the footbridge was there in 2016.

“My husband and son would have been alive today had this footbridge existed then,” she rues.

“But at least it’s safe now to cross the road. More women will not become widows or lose their children like I did,” she adds.