It is not doubt an embarrassing situation when a visitor from abroad is dangerously exposed to chaotic traffic in India. Just as he exits any of the country’s airports it takes him no time to be merged and jammed into it. Heavy traffic is one issue, but the chaotic traffic is a completely different kettle of fish. Many of us who haven’t been abroad simply fail to acknowledge the predicament. For them there is nothing wrong with our traffic, its only in our nature to have the Chalta Hai attitude. The worst of all is the movement in opposite direction on one-way roads, unchecked by anyone.
The second worst contributor to the precarious traffic system in India is the attitude of drivers and pedestrians. A few decades back when the luxury mode of local travel was bicycle, it was customary for the pedestrians to wait and allow the cyclist to pass first, even though the road might have been empty. This happened as a rule, irrespective of whether cyclist was a laborer and the pedestrian a rich man or someone in power. Today, a pedestrian can hold the fast moving mass of vehicular traffic by an inconspicuous signal of his hand. He then crosses a road sometime at the peril of an accident involving multiple vehicles. Internationally this might works in civilized countries, but here it brings the already congested traffic to a grinding halt.
The vehicle drivers think of themselves as kings of the road since they pay the road tax and the pedestrians claim this right by virtue of their conviction that they rule the country due to the majority of votes that they cast. This polarization results in people taking sides in case of disputes or conflicts on the roads; the driver is always considered wrong. The crux of the problem is that the large number of people and vehicles on the road cannot be serviced.
The absence of crosswalks leaves the pedestrians with no other option but to storm the roads for crossing. Zebra lines are present only as exceptions, but whenever present these are faded and almost invisible. It is amusing to see the sudden gushing out of synchronized movements of vehicles and pedestrians as soon the signal turns green. The zigzagged rush for searching an opening for movement, both by vehicles and pedestrians around each other, is no less than a game of circus. Occasionally the cars demonstrate great acrobatics at crossings, outperforming the pedestrians. Usually this credit goes to the pedestrians. Each cycle of signal change is also earmarked with a couple of shouts and bad mouthing. People’s behavior on roads and in public places is not merely a function of the attitudes developed at leisure, but is also accentuated by the anguish and frustration at the way the traffic is managed by the authorities.
Consider another scene. The motorcades of the VIPs entourage cause traffic holdups for miles and hours, every day and many times in a day. Even emergency vans or paramedics of the hospitals are not allowed to sneak in. The sad part is that some of these VIPs are suspected criminals enjoying the benefits of licensed and subsidized weapons are well protected by the delayed law enforcement, by design.
Absence of Sidewalks
The concept of footpaths on the roadsides has not been successful in Indian cities for the simple reason that encroachments that take place here have the backing of police or political patronage. Roadside kiosks configure themselves into makeshift markets, which continue to stay entrenched forever. A popular alternate use of the roadside stretches is parking for vehicles. The lack of space on the sides of the roads is as much of a handicap as the availability of funds for redoing the roads. The government feels satisfied if it can manage the re-surfacing of selected roads once in 4 years. It looks no further.
Without the metaled sidewalks, the pedestrians can still manoeuvre their way around, but with footpaths converted into roadside markets, the only option is to take the aerial route; something that they have not been able to achieve so far.
Cattle on the Road
Sometime back, a colleague from Romania suddenly shouted for my attention when we were sitting next in the car. She asked an amusing question, while I was negotiating an opening between a squatter cow and a herd of monkeys walking right in the center of the center of this country, Ashok Road in New Delhi. ‘What is this cow doing in the middle of the road, and I don’t see any grass around’. Knowing pretty well that it was not a satirical comment but a serious inquiry, I was a bit nonplussed to give a convincing answer. ‘Cows are respected and worshiped as mothers in India, and must they not have equal rights on the roads in the capital’.
Wait until you read more. In Metro and other large cities, buying vegetables and fruit is the easiest of the errands; in fact, it is no errand at all. These are all there waiting on the roadsides just to be picked up by the drivers. Hawkers, protected by their political friends, for a consideration of course, set up good-looking kiosks on the roadsides. Mind you these are better stocked than the super-markets. In addition, they have been given this right by the enactment that 30 percent of the roadside area is earmarked for what is called street vending. Instead of paying the rent for the shops, the hawkers have just to pay the weekly fees (hafta) to the mafia for being spared, yet they mind nothing since their profits can cover these meager demands.
Some countries have come to terms with businesses run on the streets. Even entertainment kiosks such as pubs are now extending on to the streets. Since it is an accepted norm in these countries the streets are suitably modified for co-existence of business, pedestrians and the moving vehicles. Compulsion has been converted into opportunity by innovative thinking in these countries.
Buying While Driving
For the office-going woman of the family, there can be nothing more convenient than picking up the best quality vegetables and fruit incidentally, while on way back from work, without the hassle of looking for a parking place in a shopping arcade. Just by a flick of the gear and the swirl of the wheel, one can change the driving lane on the first glimpse of a roadside kiosk, and transmit the order while continuing to stay glued to the mobile phone on the wheel. It does not matter if any traffic was following the vehicle. The worse follows after the order is served. Returning to the driving lane is not so convenient,so a similar manoeuvre as was getting out of it takes place. Just imagine if many vehicles are parked abreast enjoying precisely the same service from the helping and darting lads of the vendor, what kind of chaos could be created by the simultaneous moving out and moving in to the driving lane. This is the best driving test that we can hold for the drivers. The drivers go through this adventure, showing off their caliber of avoiding a crash.
Similar, but worse situation is seen around the religious places on the days earmarked for worship or prayers, Tuesdays for temples and Sundays for Sikh gurudwaras.
Driving in India is a challenge and most of the visitors from abroad do not venture into this pastime. Even the visiting non-resident Indians avoid driving in India. The locals on the other hand consider driving on roads, an opportunity for testing their skills as a Formula one participant. They can derive the thrills of a countryside rally on any road in the country; most of these are dug out for such adventures. On the better-constructed roads, the speed limits are there to be violated and enjoyed.
The ecstasy is even more pronounced when the driver is aware that the people on the steering wheel in the cars abreast are probably in possession of fake driving licenses. Drunken driving and road rage is a hobby of the rich in money and power. Certain expensive car and SUV brands have earned the reputation of being accident machines. Women drivers are out to prove that the women’s lib is in vogue in the country.
Vehicles whizzing past from the wrong side while overtaking is a rule rather than an exception. An equally popular style is driving from the opposite direction head–on. If the road is empty, the vehicle from the opposite direction has the benefit of a flying past speed, and if the stream of traffic going in the right direction is intense, the vehicle in the opposite direction causes a sure traffic jam. Head-on driving is resorted to when the gap in verge is just a few meters away.
Do you agree that the dangerous driving, which can cause damage or deaths, deserves a stricter punishment than not tying the belt or taking a call on the mobile phone? The government does not seem to be thinking this way. Even if the police was equipped and competent to make a chase for an offender of this type, the disorder on the roads may cause the officer to be stuck in the traffic itself.
Traffic needs an organised system of parking facilities, so that the traffic waiting for parking or coming out of it does not obstruct the moving traffic. If school buses are parked on roads inside a colony and shopkeepers occupy the parking area earmarked for the shoppers, we have a problem. Similarly, parking woes near public offices cause a bigger irritation than the basic issue for which a citizen goes to these offices. If petty corruption at the government offices is not a sufficient deterrent for visiting them, the parking woes certainly are. Parking related quarrels may not have become a menace as of now, but soon they will. Authorities with high concern for parking, venture into multi-level parking bays and slots. While this can somehow be achieved, who will prevent the drivers choosing to park vehicles on the roadsides?
Perhaps the single most flaw in the gamut of traffic discipline is that of fake, forged or duplicate driving licenses. It is strange that these unreliable documents are even considered as valid proofs of identity and address of an individual. In the present day scenario of security consciousness and terrorist activities, such a loophole in the system is dreadful, to say the least.
A driving license should be issued only after physical verification of each detail on the document, after the candidate has thoroughly satisfied the inspector that he is not going to be a danger on the roads. In the age of digital governance, it is possible to tag the name of the inspector who granted the licence for taking statistics whenever a driver is involved in an accident, offense or omission. The inspector should be under the scanner of vigilance. If the government feels that this is going to cost additional money, the licensing fee may be increased manifold and the collections allocated to the relevant sub-accounting head. If an individual is caught with a fake driving license, he should be imprisoned at least for three days, and if his intention is found to be to use a fake identity or address, he should be treated as a suspect criminal.
Driving license for commercial vehicles should be more difficult to receive. Particularly for drivers where passengers are involved, the license should not be given without the individual having driving experience of at least two years. In addition, such a license should be preceded by more formalized training.