Saturday, November 22, 2008

Would we, the Indians ever become sensible in using the road?

Would we, the Indians ever become sensible in using the road?

The answer is both Yes and No.

The following two articles are open statements of what ails the system ,

and therefore us - the people

who are both the cause and the end products,

that experience the malaise!

At 30 confrontations per minute


(from 'Reporter's diary')

"Indians do not drive at an average of 30 kilometres per hour in their cities. They drive at 30 confrontations per minute." These were the words, descriptive of the contemporary metro scene, of an NRI who has been coming on and off to India for close to 50 years. He could not have been more right.

En route to an early morning gymnasium workout in light traffic, a shocker was in store as a police jeep shot out of the Commando training school on Boat Club road as if it were a scalded cat. If a policeman-driven vehicle was on such a 'speed' trip, pray how can anyone avoid these enervating confrontations by the minute?

A couple from the US, who tried their best to settle back in India where their roots were, decided to pack up and head back to their adopted land. They did so only because the poor guy could not take the traffic conditions marked by such aggression on the roads, which if shown on the sporting arenas would have made world champions out of our athletes ages ago.

Not even the universal rule of letting traffic on the right have precedence (in the few countries in the world where the traffic still drives on the left side of the road) is followed whereas even in a city like Colombo such a right of way is religiously granted. That way, a lot of the mayhem is avoided and the confrontation rate comes down considerably.

In Chennai, the right of way is, however, not guaranteed even if the signal says green and it is your turn to go.

For instance, if each vehicle jumping the lights at the intersection of C.P. Ramaswamy road and St. Mary's road were to be fined Rs 100 each, there would be enough money in a year to pave all the Chennai roads – not with bitumen or concrete, but with gold.

The right of way is never taken after midnight, even on a green light, on the infamous Inner Ring Road because the trucks thundering down with their drivers licking their lips in anticipation of a free run up the Kathipara flyover could not be bothered with such civilities as traffic lights. A confrontation here could well mean the final one. That is Indian driving for you.


Recession hits bribes, rates down by 50%

Farrukh Dhondy

"The Havaldar had to earn his stripes The Zebra got them free They say that true repentance wipes The sins from you and me… " From Songs of the Universal Nipple by Bachchoo MY RICKSHAW in Mumbai city crossed a red light and immediately there were whistles from various directions of the road-crossing and a constable stood in the path of our escape. The rickshaw driver pulled up at the side of the road. He wasn't concerned about the fact that I would disapprove of his road manners or that I would be annoyed at the delay to my journey. Nor did he seem perturbed by the arm of the law which was stretching out in his direction.

"So that's your license blighted, marked or taken away," I said. He was very cool "No, Rs 50," he said. "It used to be 20 but, collapse of the world markets, recession, inflation, rising prices and all that…" he said in very demotic Hindi interspersed with general reflections on the state of virginity of the world's female relatives.

I should have realised that like everything else bribes are also subject to global economic pressures.

I wanted to witness the transaction but it was done as if by magic. The Rs 50 note passed without my seeing when and how. A very few words were exchanged and the constable walked away. The driver pulled the lever at his feet and coaxed the engine into protest as we moved away.

There was a repeat performance with my friend on his motorcycle the next day. He had his helmet slung across the handlebar instead of locked onto his head. A cop stops him and says he'll take his license and his particulars. My friend shows him a Rs 20 note which says he won't. The cop is contemptuous. He won't compromise himself for such a paltry sum. He refuses the deal and pretends to write in his notebook which deals out receipts for deceits, expecting my friend to panic and offer more. My unhelmeted friend remains unperturbed — this is street poker. The cop asks him if he is willing to pay the official fine. My friend says it will be Rs 100 and yes, he'll pay it and take a receipt.

"You might as well give the 100 to me," the cop says.

This is tantamount to blinking at poker and looking nervously away from one's hand.

"20," says my friend.

He wins. The price for an unhelmeted motorcycle ride is suffering deflation.

The same friend takes me on his bike through Mumbai's impassable streets, passing them by winding in and out of the traffic, climbing pavements which are only half clear, crossing to the wrong side of the street in risky loops that manage to dodge the on-coming traffic by a skid-mark and generally entering into the near-gladiatorial contest of the Indian highway. I lose count of the traffic regulations he violates. At several junctions we weave through a knot of traffic that has come to a complete standstill because the progress of every lane of cars, rickshaws or buses has been blocked by other traffic athwart it. The bumper of one vehicle is nearly touching the side of another whose bumper is in turn blocked a few inches from the side... and so on.

As motorcyclists we find the inches through which we can break loose of the knot. There are no police about and several drivers get out of their cars to instruct other vehicles to reverse a few inches or stop pushing forward deeper into the jam so as to break the knot.

Signs on the roads exhort the drivers to desist from using mobile phones or driving after drinking, to wear helmets on motorbikes, to secure seat belts in cars and to observe lane discipline. These are otiose instructions, municipal vanities. King Canute stood before the waves and bade them recede.

A newcomer to Mumbai, or to any other Indian city for that matter, may conclude that the observable bad traffic manners on Indian roads are merely the product of frustration with the volume of traffic which uses the scarce resort of gangway. Or they may come to the more profound conclusion that bad road manners are the expression of some deeper malign disposition or selfish streak in Indian culture.

Both would be correct.

The first could be alleviated through the provision of better roads or through a miraculous boost in the rapidity, availability and comfort of public transport, but these are city planners' dreams.

The other, the deeper malaise, could never be "solved" but it may be helped by much stronger policing.

For instance if one had, in a city such as Mumbai, 24,000 scrupulously honest traffic policemen and women on the streets, armed with the authority to stop and penalise every traffic peccadillo such as crossing lanes, blowing one's horn, swerving in front of other rickshaws, going an inch beyond the marked boundaries of a traffic signal, leaving one's headlights on while driving, not having lights while driving etc… etc... we may ease the pain of passage through the city. There would be thousands, perhaps, millions of chalaans and judgment would never be tempered with mercy. But then my excursions in the study of English idiom taught me that as "sour sweet" or a virtuous devil is an oxymoron, so is a "scrupulously honest traffic policeman".

The alternative would be to recruit the same number of policemen and women, to give them the same draconian powers and to legalise bribery on the streets.

We constantly hear that bribery and corruption are rife because the cops are not paid enough. If my rickshaw driver knows the going bribe price for a particular offence, we are pretty close to the legalisation of bribery. Giving it official status and equipping the force with draconian powers against bad road manners might even save government money by proportionately cutting down constabular salaries. It would certainly dispense with the hypocrisy and street chaos of the status quo.

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