The year was 1990. I was on my motorcycle near ISBT on the ring road in Delhi. An old couple on a Vespa scooter slipped and fell… and a few cars screeched to stop, swerve and go their way. I parked my motorcycle on the side and ran to the dazed couple, helped them get up and asked, ‘Do you need medical attention or are you fine?’
‘We’re fine,’ they said, ‘just in a shock.’
I helped them get to one side of the road and stood there with them until they had regained their wits. Just then some passer-by stopped and said, ‘Accident?’ And then without waiting for a reply, went on, ‘These auto-walas should be hanged. Even rash drivers in cars. Truck drivers need to be jailed. DTC buses are driven by Satan himself.’ That included quite a few of those who drove on the roads those days, and the old man who had now recovered, smiled and said, ‘You forget the cyclists, pedestrians, thela-walas, rickshaws, tongas…’
The angry pedestrian remarked, ‘The only way to set things right on India’s roads is to crush every person who commits a traffic crime.’
I laughed and asked, ‘Crush? You mean, throw them all under some bus or truck? Or maybe throw them on the railway line?’
‘There are too many people already using the railways for suicide,’ that man said, visibly hurt by us not taking him seriously, and walked away in a huff.
Why I mention this incident is because nothing much has changed after all these years of statistics telling us that education has made us more sensible. Angry retorts and meaningless discussions are still the norm when it comes to discussing traffic violations. Just go out and stand on the kerb-side near some bus-stop and listen to what the hoi-polloi is talking about and you’ll hear sentences like… ‘we should have martial law in this country’ or ‘strict punishment is the only solution’ or ‘tie a violator to a pole and let people throw stones at him’… and then you’ll be shocked to see this very man start his scooter and drive without wearing his helmet and against the traffic flow to save a crucial 100 yards!
We haven’t changed.
Yes, we haven’t changed despite all our mid-day meals and learning by rote! We haven’t changed despite all the statistics that stares at us from half-page ads extolling the improved education profile in the country! We haven’t changed despite all the speeches from the ramparts of the red fort on Independence Day. We haven’t changed despite all the hullaballoo on the social media and the numerous meetings and conclaves on the need to have improved traffic regulations!
So I guess that all the chaos on our roads isn’t because we have any dearth of regulations or rules or laws… or insufficient people talking about it… or awareness campaigns. This chaotic state is because of us. We haven’t changed because we don’t want to change.
Let me tell you about this interesting incident that happened in my presence a couple of days back when I was in Ahmedabad. We were in an auto and returning from Sarkhej Roza and at some crossing the traffic was unruly and completely bonkers. The traffic cop was gesticulating wildly but no one appeared to even notice his presence and went about adding to the wonderfully sweaty jam on a road that was big enough to bear heavy traffic. I asked the auto-driver, ‘Why isn’t anyone following traffic rules?’
‘We call this road the mand-buddhi road,’ said the driver and laughed indulgently. Mand-buddhi in English would mean weak minded. Our driver explained that there was something strange about that stretch of the road and the traffic was always in the clutches of chaos. ‘So all over Ahmedabad, this stretch is called the man-buddhi stretch,’ he said.
It appears to me, however, that most of the traffic in most of the cities in our country would qualify as a mand-buddhi traffic! Stop lines, even where they exist and are visible, seem to be invisible to errant drivers… the traffic lights blink desperately for attention but not many pay attention… two-wheelers love the footpaths more than the roads… going against the traffic is our way of embracing an adventurous life… our pedestrians love to reach the middle of the road and then stop for no reason at all or stand undecided… crossing a road by taking the longest way across is our hobby… and all this combined in a single stretch of road can be quite devastating! We may be making a mark in the Silicon Valley or winning Nobel prizes for peace… but we’re all mand-buddhi on our roads!
I remember once stopping to ask a traffic cop, ‘I see 80 percent of the people here committing traffic violations. Why don’t you stop and fine them all?’
‘And let the traffic come to a stand-still?’ – this was all the cop said, and I could understand what he meant. The cop added later that they sometimes do overlook violations simply to let the traffic keep moving.
I have mentioned all these incidents and stories to emphasise that the traffic issue in India is indeed rather complex… and so the solution has to take it on a long journey from being ‘mand-buddhi’ to be sensitised and aware.
One of the facts known to set things right is action that begins from the top. This simply means that people in high positions need to be conscious of the fact that there are thousands of others watching them, emulation them, and making them their role model. Thus the moment one of these role models does something, there are hundreds of us ordinary mortals ready to follow it. If this action happens to be asking the driver to go on even when the traffic lights ask you to stop, what option do the others have but to happily follow? So you see, we love following the leader… and the smaller the place, the more the probability of actions being watched closely and followed.
I guess this is how even an ordinary hard-working clerk in the transport department evolved into a master-mind for little and insignificant irregularities! I mean they may look little when compared to the major scams of the leaders who he idolises, but in the minds of his victims, these small bribe demands can be life-threatening! And more importantly, even he is a role model for a lot of other individuals yet lower down the line… and thus the tradition of ‘follow the leader’ goes on unhindered and faster than social scientists would want to believe.
As a result, the discipline on the roads goes for a six. Thus obviously, this is one facet that needs to change! If the leader opts to change, we will all change! So the way out is to have leadership at all levels becoming conscious of their influence and becoming willing to adopt change.
The other vital clue in the degeneration of traffic sensitivity is instructions from the boss and these too need to be changed.
Haven’t we heard of passengers goading the rickshaw driver or the auto-driver or the cab-driver to go faster or to just move in and out of the traffic and not bother about the law because they are in an obvious hurry? This also happens when the owner asks his driver to park the car in a no-parking zone because it is bang opposite the store he is visiting. Look at the buses breaking lane logic to overtake each other because they have instructions from the top to reach before the other bus reaches and thus get more passengers. In all these cases the laws and the rules are conveniently kept away from sight and the explanation is: ‘You see, I need to do this to survive!’
Come on, it is these actions that are closely watched by the others on the street and they make us all vicious enough to follow the breaker of laws and convert small incidents into mass movements! Thus the way out of this massive network of lawlessness on the roads is that the orders from the top, so to say, need to become sensitised to the life on the roads… this means that ‘instructions’ must be expressed after a great deal of thought. Remember, instructions can change the profile of actions!
During my interactions with people on the roads I have also learnt that people are woefully unaware of the rules. There are drivers who cannot read even road signs. There are students who are never taught what road safety means. There are adults who think that pedestrians have a right of way anywhere and all the time. All this happens because of faults in the communication of the rules.
It is comparatively easier to set this aspect right. Making sure that the test for driving licence is not a sham and that the tests are extensive and stringent will mean drivers knowing the theory of safety before they start driving. Distribution of informative pamphlets on road safety and inclusion of lessons in text-books is already followed… but this communication isn’t obviously having an effective reach. Why not make each traffic violator at a crossing remain there until he has caught another ten violators. This isn’t all. The violators must learn by heart a set of rules that would have made him road-safe and repeat or communicate this set to each of the ten violators he catches. This cyclic catch-the-culprit and make-him-learn road safety rules might add to the efforts that are already being made.
The reach of the social media is increasing and so is its penetration. This is obvious because even I can now call up my plumber or electrician or even the maid and communicate what needs to be done… and the important point is that almost everyone is slowly shifting to ‘touch phones’ are also aware of whatsapp and Facebook! So our officials and our road safety departments need to now reach-out through the social media.
It is thus time now for the police and other road-safety departments to get over their reticence of the internet and the social media. They need to be present here on these platforms and creating interactive messaging for mass consumption. They need to harness these powerful tools to convert India into a model for road ethics the world over.
However, I also know how things are done in the government sector… a memo or a circular arrives from the top echelons asking every department to reach-out through the social media. A wave of confused excitement breaks in and the local in-charge simply points out to the only person known to take his job seriously, ‘OK, you do this and send me your report daily.’ So this poor soul gets yet another assignment even as all others smile slyly and go on slumbering. Come on, this is NOT what I am recommending.
Before I even talk about the solution, let me give another example. In the University of York, where Specky, my wife, went as a Commonwealth Scholar to complete her DPhil, we were pleasantly surprised to find they had a complete department that looked after networking and the health of PCs there. This was in 1994. In our own country even in 2014, colleges and institutions do not have a dedicated department to look after just networking and PCs etc. It is lecturers who are asked to take this up as an ‘additional’ responsibility besides their teaching load. No wonder then that nothing ever functions properly… and IT-awareness in our institutions remain like our chaotic road-traffic. I have given this example to hammer in my insistence to have a dedicated team of professionals to look after increasing awareness about traffic sensibilities in India. Unless this is done, even the social media cannot be tapped properly.
Change comes only when change is encouraged, nurtured, and nourished. Change cannot be forced, coerced, and bullied. All that I have insisted upon is that we need to gently lead in change into our lives, unleashed and left free to explore and evolve on its own.
10 December 2014