There are a million differences between India and the United States; people, culture, laws, history, religion. The list can go on and on. But when you return to India after a decade or so in America, one thing you can’t escape from and have to deal with daily is the chaotic traffic. Depending on how you look at it, this phenomenon is either an incredible feat of human imagination or an utterly avoidable, yet worsening death spiral that is taking more and more lives every day. While I personally believe it’s the latter, there are times when, as a bystander, I wonder whether it can serve as Exhibit A for American libertarian philosophy.
Before we get into the specifics, a crash course on libertarianism as a political philosophy is in order. The popularity Ron Paul enjoyed in the last few election cycles has reminded Americans of this school of thought that I believe was pioneered by Austrians a century or two ago. But in India, forget about followers of libertarianism, finding people who are even aware of it is as difficult as find a unicorn. The philosophy is based on a deeply held belief that when it comes to the things governments can or cannot do, personal liberty and freedom trump all other considerations. Almost! The exceptions generally made are national security, law & order and certain infrastructure projects that ease the movement of people and goods around the country.
For starters, this concept is alien and even counter-intuitive for a vast majority of Indians of today. Other than a handful of big, well-established business houses and the new wave of entrepreneurs who have to constantly fight the archaic web of Indian bureaucracy, most Indians are brainwashed to think that ‘mai-baap sarkaar’ or, as right-wing Americans would call it, cradle-to-grave government, has an important role to play in everyone’s life and the society’s wellbeing. This has led to an interesting paradox that is modern-day India: A country of a billion+ people that has the fastest growing economy in the world and one of the worst rankings in ease of doing business (140 something out of 180-odd countries).
One can get into the historic reasons behind this implicit faith in government as a force for good. And in the long and illustrious history of India, there are many. There is Kautilya’s (Chanakya) ‘Arthashastra’ from ancient India, which advocated the setting up of a sprawling surveillance state to track and control every aspect of human life. And then, there is the post-independence socialist system set up primarily by Pandit Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. After more than 150 years of British rule that left India indigent, illiterate, dying of hunger and hopelessly dependent on foreign imports, one can debate whether the bureaucratic cobwebs left behind by the British and the closed economy have done more harm than good. But the bottom line is that Indians are conditioned to look at the government as the enabler, or snatcher, of practically everything! If the government handles just national security and infrastructure, how can we justify the huge bureaucracy and their fat salaries? They need some work!
And yet, it is one of the biggest ironies that Indian traffic has developed as American libertarian utopia. It starts with getting licenses. In spite of recent attempts at reforming the driver’s license granting system, I can safely say that virtually nobody takes any tests or knows anything about driving rules and regulations. Through a vast network of ‘agents,’ Indians can get driver’s licenses by showing up only when a digital photo needs to be taken. The tests can be ‘managed.’
This leads to certain harmless, amusing spectacles like using the right indicator to let other drivers overtake you. Nobody uses the indicator for its intended purpose, anyway. If you’ve paid for them, might as well invent a new use for those blinkers. On Indian highways, a truck driver turning his right indicator on to ‘indicate’ that you can overtake him is quite common. But the lack of any rules also leads to ‘jungle-raaj’ (jungle rule) in lane observance. At any signal, the largest vehicle is standing in the rightmost lane. Smaller SUVs or sedans are next to them. Rickshaws come after that. And two-wheelers are like gap-fillers. They can fit in wherever there is space. Plus, there is also an unwritten rule that the leftover space on the extreme left is a two-wheeler lane, which magically forms as soon as the signal turns red. That’s the pecking order. In India, when deciding which lane you belong to, every driver implicitly agrees that size does matter.
There is also some weird competition to get to the front of the line at every signal, as if those precious 2-3 seconds saved are going to dramatically change your life. Indians may not have the time to ponder where the country is headed and whether obeying rules can help change that direction, but every Indian driver is dying to see what’s going on at the intersection and whether he or she can bump the red light!
To control pollution, Indian authorities have installed countdown clocks at some signals to tell drivers how long it is going to take before the light turns green. Instead of turning off the engine to reduce pollution, Indians have invented a new interpretation of the clock: How long before you can start encroaching on and effectively blocking the intersection. As soon as the countdown to the last 10 seconds starts, Indians think that it’s their moral obligation to start inching toward the middle of the intersection. If your ‘foreign-returned’ self wants to wait till the light turns green, they don’t hesitate to blow the horn and give you the ‘what’s-wrong-with-you?’ look when passing you by.
In cities like Bangalore with perpetually clogged arteries, drivers have taken this behavior to a higher plane. At certain intersections in the city center, to ensure smooth movement of traffic, cops suspend the automatic switching systems and manually control lights during rush hour. In such cases, when traffic from one side has to stop for longer than usual, Indian drivers suddenly get a fit of moral outrage. Even when they can see why they are not being allowed to go, after a few minutes, the horns start blaring in unison, telling the traffic cop that they have waited long enough. If the cop doesn’t budge, they take the law in their own hands, conclude that it’s their turn and hence have a right to proceed. The best part of this moral outrage is that it is felt only when you are the victim. It melts away into the ether, or smog, when the driver is breaking the law.
I am sure the helplessness of the traffic cops in such situations has something to do with the extremely low traffic cops-to-drivers ratio in India. But their lethargy knows no bounds and on several occasions, they can be seen encouraging unlawful behavior. To add to that, it is an everyday sight to see vehicles of government agencies openly flouting the traffic rules. The very people entrusted with law enforcement and performing government duties – traffic police, cops, public transport drivers, bureaucrats, politicians – roam around as if the laws don’t apply to them.
With this state of affairs, you can imagine the plight of pedestrians. It is an open secret in India that pedestrians have no rights. And since they are lowest in the food-chain and cops don’t have the time to help them, they take the law in their own hands. Literally! It is a perfectly normal sight in India to see pedestrians trying to cross streets waving their own hands telling the traffic to stop. Whether the driver will yield depends, naturally, on the speed at which he or she is driving. And while the hapless pedestrians can never find a big-enough and clean-enough footpath to walk on, bikers can occasionally use the footpath – or whatever is left of it – with no compunction; once again, just to get a good view of the intersection. Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it hasn’t killed any Indians yet who are curious about the goings-on at the intersection.
Come festival season, which is upon us, things get worse. There are huge processions of Gods being carted around town or gurus sitting in high chairs (like the Pope roaming around in Pope-Mobile) being paraded with pride. Since the traffic cops don’t have the time for these events, procession organizers turn into cops. They have the God-given or Godman-given and hence, unchallenged, authority to stop all the traffic at any intersection to ensure smooth passage of the procession. It goes without saying that in secular India, this right is extended to all processions and public displays of all faiths, blocking traffic throughout the year.
Some of the cities have now made helmets mandatory for two-wheeler riders. It is common to see helmets dangling by some hooks or resting on the footrests, only to be whipped out and put in the place they belong – the heads – as the rider approaches an intersection. More importantly, this has also led to the development of some exquisite, non-verbal communication at intersections. Helmets may have robbed us of yelling and cursing at each other, but hasn’t broken our will to break the law. When two two-wheelers approach an unmanned intersection at night, they don’t even need hand gestures. Head-and-neck gestures are enough to decide who goes first. When the intersection is packed and a two-wheeler wants to go in the wrong direction, a combination of head and hand gestures is enough to request others to let you go. If you are trying to ignore the rider at fault, the gestures are followed by a pat on your shoulder, a honk, a bike-to-bike nudge or some combination thereof. Things can get ugly after that. So, ignore the law-breaker at your own peril!
Honking is another integral part of Indian driving that probably deserves its own post. To give you an example, people in the West may be worried about early warning systems for natural disasters like tsunamis and volcanoes. The Indian driver is still preoccupied with using the horn as an early warning system to announce his or her arrival at the intersection. Even if it is 3am with no other vehicle on the horizon, an Indian driver has to honk when approaching an intersection. It goes on and on and on!
Long story short, in a country where no drivers learn any rules and the law enforcement officials are low in numbers and focused on collecting bribes, the system has invented its own rules. It is an accidental libertarian utopia for which mostly pedestrians and bikers – lowest in the food-chain – are paying the price by getting killed by the thousands every year. Nonetheless, in this stream-of-consciousness country and humanity called India, the streams of traffic keep growing exponentially every year with no change in sight.