I have been an avid motorist having driven all over Western Europe, West Asia and India. In Britain every crossing had a distinct number and in the pre-GPS days when one drove with a map one could easily locate where one was, at crossings. Some streets in London are narrow but vehicular traffic is so orderly that there are seldom any traffic jams. This is possible because of stiff penalties for violators. In West Asia, where most movement is by road, because of lack of railways, highways have animal fencing right through.
Nothing could be more of a night mare than braving the hazards of Indian roads. Even on National Highways the fast-right lane has the slowest lumbering trucks, or worst bullock carts which refuse to give way to faster traffic. One has, perforce, to invariably over take from the left, a risky proposition and now a cognizable offence. The other hazards are stray cattle and wildlife, like Blue Bulls, India’s largest antelopes, which have multiplied and now need to be classified as vermin and culled. There are very few roads with cattle fences to keep out these transgressions. Our tarmac roads are pot holed, easily damaged by the lightest downpour of rain. I think it has more to do with road repair/ resurfacing contracts which are lucrative and renewed almost every year. Anybody who feels like constructing a speed breaker has liberty to make this, unmarked, monstrosity, even on highways. This impedes the flow of traffic. It is mandatory for petrol pumps to have toilets. Most are generally locked and, if open, are unusable and stinking to high heaven. One can’t blame ‘The Ugly Indian’ of making use of roadside foliage. Of late religious processions have become a big impediment to vehicular traffic. Anybody who has had the misfortune of driving on Fridays during noon prayer time or the period in August when ‘Kanwarias’, monopolize the roads of Western UP and bring the vehicular movement and economy to a grinding halt, would recount their horrors. The latest hazard is reckless under age drivers, over speeding--spoilt children of rich families not subject to parental control. There has also been an alarming increase in the number of vehicles, especially in cities where most families now own more than two cars. E Rickshaws have added to the congestion and confusion. In the countryside there has been a proliferation of unregistered ‘Jugadu’ vehicles, locally manufactured on bullock cart chassis and fitted with an assortment of, ingenious, methods of propulsion-ranging from generators to fishing boat engines. These have no safety provisions, no accountability and are a safety hazard.
There are however some plus points too for motorists. The much-maligned traffic cops perform an arduous duty in inclement weather, inhale huge amount of fumes but continue performing their thankless duty controlling unruly traffic. They keep our roads reasonably safe from dangers that constantly lurk, but woe betide them if they haul up persons with political ‘connections’. The road side ‘Dhabas’ serve the most wholesome food, at very reasonable rates, and provide cots for a siesta, as an extra bonus. In case of a flat tyre, or a breakdown, there will be no dearth of helping hands in exchange for some friendly banter. When asking for directions one is not only patiently explained but your benefactor might hitch a ride to guide you right up to your destination. In the old days roads were tree lined with ‘Jamun’ (Java Plum), ‘Imli’ (Tamarind), Aam (Mango) and ‘Shisham’ (Rose Wood) trees. These provided shade and succulent fruit, for free. To my regret most of these trees have been axed to make space for road widening and replaced by eucalyptus. A massive tree plantation drive with local variety of trees should be a top priority. When purchasing fruit from roadside vendors, omnipresent in front of road side orchards, you may think you are striking a smart bargain. These are not fresh fruit from the orchard but brought in from fruit ‘Mandis’. Besides, you probably pay a higher price than the regular market because all the salesmen are part of one family. Prices are prefixed and you don’t stand a chance in bargaining.
The new Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Act 2019 which came into effect from 1st September 2019 will hopefully enforce change for the better .This legislation was previously introduced in 2017 but lapsed in the Rajya Sabha after the dissolution of the 16th Lok Sabha.Penalties for driving infringements have been considerably enhanced, as much as ten times, and will have a very salutary effect as sometimes the penalty imposed would cost more than the vehicle itself. In a recently reported case a scooterist was fined Rs 37000/= and decided not to get his old impounded scooter released as its value was only Rs 15000/=. The police have been vigilant enforcers and penalty collections since the imposition of the new rules have been huge.
There are two types of penalties, 14 ‘Compoundable’, for lesser infringements, which entail immediate, on the spot payments, like over speeding, dangerous driving, using the mobile phone while driving, not wearing seat belts (even for rear seats) or crash helmets and triple riding on two wheelers, blocking the way for emergency vehicles like fire brigade and ambulances, using horn in silent zone, driving vehicles without proper registration, valid pollution and insurance certificates. Serious infringements like jumping a red light, driving on the wrong side of the road, drunken driving and juveniles driving vehicles ( where parents will also be held accountable). These will be punishable by stiff punishments payable in court and may also invite a jail term. State Governments are working out the amount of penalties to be levied.
India has had its spell of the indisciplined traffic, with violators enjoying impunity from law. Only the fear of swift punishment will correct this dismal state of affairs. It must be ensured that no one remains above the law. There is an immediate requirement to direct religious processions away from main arterial highways to side, lesser used roads to safeguard the interests of the pilgrim and prevent accidents. Bitumen surfaced roads need to be replaced by concrete, or better still with surfacing from waste plastic. Research must be directed in this direction. Stray cattle and vermin need to be neutered. There is also an urgent requirement to provide public transport so that dependency on privately owned vehicles is reduced. We need to follow the Singapore model where cost of cars and road tax is so prohibitively high that most middle class does not own cars, but uses public transport.
The road map has been put into place. Success will lie in proper implementation and it, hopefully, appears to be just around the corner.
The facts and views expressed in the article are those of the writer.