Apr 3, 2010

Bucking the Ride

Driving in India requires you to have 3 absolutely essential aspects:
Good Horn, Good Brakes and Good luck.

Its been a long while since I've used public transportation.
'Infrastructure' as is known in India is a fairly loose term.

Recession meant I had to cut corners and with fuel prices eating up more of my earnings every month, I decided to sell my ride and take up public transportation.
I've earned most of my miles traveling in buses in Bangalore and back home in Kollam, Kerala.
Given a choice, I would travel in a bus rather than a car or any other private mode of transportation. Buses in Kerala and Bangalore are my favorite, besides the locals in Mumbai.

Public Buses in Bangalore are laid back and have a mind of their own. Drivers think they are above the law, and conductors try to make a quick buck every opportunity they get. There are laws, if it were followed, would have made driving in Bangalore is pleasure. But what do you get if a driver decides to stop for a passenger almost diagonally across the road, for 20 seconds. This has a domino affect on all the rest of the traffic that was unlucky enough to be behind the bus. In the 30 seconds that it took for the bus to get moving, you would have all the other drivers honking and literally pulling their hair out. Now, multiply this by a thousand buses doing this at least 30 times a days. Combine this with a hundred cows, a thousand bullock carts, a million Rickshaws, a zillion bikes and a quadrillion cars. That's the formula for Road Rash, Bangalore Edition.

I was traveling on the day of the Civic elections that were held recently, and I must say, that was the first day I ever saw the roads without a traffic jam in the CBD (Central Business District).
Many well intentioned publicity campaigns were launched, but none of them ever made a dent in the psyche of the common Indian road user.

So what ails Bangalore roads?

Most of them are illiterate and with the lackadaisical quality of primary education, our drivers rarely get to learn about traffic rules and unless there is a concerted effort, our children will never learn that either. I remember how we used to have traffic education back in our primary classes. My biggest source of social etiquette was from a TV show called 'Sesame Street'. I still remember how the friendly puppets used to teach us different things.. Sadly, our children are stuck with lackluster shows on TV.

Roads in Bangalore, are pretty much unmarked and none have dedicated lanes for emergency vehicles. Our drivers change lanes with absolute disregard and blatant disrespect for their fellow drivers and road users. A show of hand or signal is considered 'luxury' if not for the cursory glance while you are changing lanes or making that turn. After all, 'why should I take care. If you are behind me, you should look out for me'. Our 'I am the King of the Road' attitude is wrecking havoc which probably over the years, will mutate into 'Hit first, Ask questions later'.

I have seen ambulances with their sirens getting stuck at the traffic lights, just because the guy in the front didn't want to jump the signal. (He would have otherwise jumped the signal if he was late for a movie/date) God bless you, if you ever need an ambulance in Bangalore!
I have seen men (in particular) in bikes ride on the footpath (yes, you heard me right, the foot path) just so that they can get ahead at the traffic lights.

Well, the roads, themselves leave much to be desired since most of the roads that were laid in the last 2-3 years look like the work of a bunch of kids with shovels and a lot of tar. Uneven does not even begin to describe the road leading up to the Golf course and Hebbal flyover.
Much of the road look like tar was laid over a carpet bombed terrain, the railings shoddy and crooked and dividers that look like a bunch of Lego blocks strewn in a line. I have been on better dirt roads in villages! This road however gets me thinking and wondering 'Who approved this road and how is it that we never have bothered to castrate the bastards who made millions out of a work this shoddy'.

Enforcing laws that already exist should be given the highest priority. Nothing less should do. Like a capricious child with an obsessive compulsive disorder, our Authorities love to create a lot of new rules. It is almost like they are vying for credit for creating draconian rules that never get implemented. I recently got a mail (one of the thousands that are forwarded/spammed) that gave a list of all the traffic rules and punishments. What struck me (besides the realization that the rules might have been ghost written by some 8th grade student) was that most of the 'fines' were a pittance; Rs 100, for instance is a paltry sum. 1oo bucks would have been a princely sum back in the 80's but with the rupee being what it is now, I would rather pay the pittance rather than follow the rule. The fines which are meant to be a deterrence fail to even worry us. 
Growing up in Kuwait, there used to frequent and prompt checks (at any time of the day). There was never any reluctance to pay fines though we have rarely been fined, since the fines and the punishments there were as harsh as they were fiercely enforced. I have seen cops stand in the middle of the blazing sun to make sure they check every driver and punish those breaking the rules. You can't even think of jumping the red light, because you can bet your last buck that you will get a court order in 7 working days asking you to pay up KD 500 (approximately Rs 75000/approximately what an average Indian earns in 3 months). So if you drive without documents, no amount of money muscle or name pulling will help, you will be in jail until the court decides to hear your case (which is probably 1 week). Now this is liberal Kuwait. Consider yourself lucky you are not in Saudi Arabia. You ogle at that lady, and you would end yourself without an eye!

But welcome to India. Aren't we just so lucky that our leaders are politically impotent?

They don't have the will nor the creativity to enforce laws.
A lot of us would like to move mountains but few are willing to practice on small hills.
A very close pal of mine, once remarked that the reason why we have a very laid back attitude about development is because we were ruled over by other civilizations for several centuries.
'Ours is the only civilization that never invaded other countries, but were ruled by others'.Or what is also known as 'The Great Indian Excuse' for screwing up!

We take pride in mediocrity. So what if we were ruled over by other nations for centuries? There have been plenty of other nations, that were ruled and stripped off their riches. Some of them are still ruled by neo imperialistic countries like the US. Japan has not one natural resource of its own, has a large population that have lived through the really tough times but is one of the most respected nations in the world today. Their education system churns out geniuses and their work ethics are flawless. Their products are the most sought after. Health care is free and politicians are fair. Though they were ruled over, nuked and brought to their knees, nothing could ever stop them. They made reforms to their constitution and enforced laws that made sure that everyone had a fair playing field. Traffic is systematic and the pedestrians would cross only in designated sections on the road. Infact you will recognize a Japanese tourist by the way he/she waits for the pedestrian lights to turn green, although in Bangalore, this is a redundant oxymoron. Public Transportation is well developed and corruption is virtually unknown. They wouldn't even think of passing the buck, and when the Japanese apologise, they mean it.

Sometime ago, I chanced upon an well meaning article about 'The Social costs of bad roads'. While not going into the details of what the article said, I wonder how many of us even think of the long term consequence of bad roads and poor driving skills will have on our society and the next generation.

Traveling down the bad roads of Bangalore, some day, I hope the eyes and mouths of our conscience open to the fact that we are capable of better roads and better civic sense. But we instead choose to wear our social blinkers.

Vellanakalude nadu, (The land of White Elephants) A Malayalam comedy by the veteran director Priyadarshan gives you a glimpse at the struggle and the corruption that happens in Kerala (and pretty much any where in India) when it comes to building a road and other public infrastructure projects. (You can watch the movie with English subtitles here)

A lot of times, we like to sidestep the issue like a pothole, for we think we cannot make a difference. We like to indulge in the great bureaucratic exercise called 'Passing the Buck', when it comes to social responsibility.

The Transportation department will let you have a license to drive, kill and maim, and all you need to do is grease the palms of that RTO inspector. I recall when I was trying to get my license, I flunked the driving test 3 times, just because I chose not to bribe that agent in the RTO. I came back, the next day, paid that agent Rs 500 and said my license would be ready, asked me to give the driving test nonetheless. Waiting in line for the test, I noticed that my form had a tiny * that my agent had marked in the top corner, which indicated to the Inspector that he was paid off. Needless to say, I 'breezed' through the test and got my license in 1 week. I knew driving partly because of my experience abroad, but mostly because my Dad was my mentor. But imagine the hundreds and thousands of those who bribe obscene amounts of money just so that they can drive.

Driving while intoxicated is such a no-brainer that I wonder why otherwise smart people would even want to venture the wheel when we know of lives that have been shattered because of people who drove when they were drunk. I guess it is because we know we can bribe that cop off, or maybe because we can earn bragging rights that we drove after drinking. Well, what people don't realize is that it's just not your turn. Not yet.

Is demanding better roads and educated and thoughtful drivers too much to ask?

Welcome to Bangalore, Formerly known as The Garden City, but now it's just The City of bad drivers and horrible roads.
PS: The image of the day: 'Hump Ahead' was chosen because of the following reasons:
1) Because I would like to thank the English genius(es) who immortalized Indian Roads by combining 2 words that make every tourist from the West giggle with naughty anticipation.
2) Because that sign makes me giggle too.
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