An afternoon with the Traffic Police: Learning about citizen action

People like me, those who read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot, tend to be armchair activists. Especially when you work in the development sector, it’s hard to actually wear the hat of the citizen activist. I’ve put the tips of my fingers into several pies and then pulled out, feeling confused, under confident and sometimes just disillusioned.

Mine isn’t a novel story, I know. But last week,  I had the opportunity to take off my thinking & analysis cap and became a do-er. Inspired by Aparna, who lives in my community and believes in taking the bull by its horns, I joined a group approaching the Traffic Police to engage in a constructive conversation about specific traffic-related issues in our neighborhood.

To offer a background, I live in a housing condominium on Sohna Road. It is a significant six-lane highway that connects Gurgaon to the Sohna town and then further to Palwal, which lies on National Highway 2. The road sees huge amounts of traffic. In addition to inter-city traffic, Sohna Road has some of the densest residential developments in the city and the volume of local traffic generated is also a lot. Gurgaon’s infrastructure is patchy and constantly under development. After a painful few years in which the road was being upgraded, widened, dug for sewer lines and so on and so forth, we now more or less have the 6 lanes in place with service lanes on both sides. However, erroneous placement of cuts, wrong parking on service lanes, intersections without traffic lights and many such niggling issues make this stretch of the Gurgaon-Sohna road very dangerous for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.

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No traffic lights at this very busy junction. Result: Chaos and a huge strain on traffic police personnel

Video credit: Siddharth Chopra

Our demands

We (Aparna, Siddharth and me, who all live in the same condo) went in with a letter that Aparna had drafted to the Traffic Police asking for:

1-More effective traffic management at Subhash Chowk, a major intersection where a flyover is being constructed. The construction will go on for many months and there has been no temporary solution provided for managing traffic with the roads in very poor condition.

2-An erroneously designed pair of cuts on the divider and the opposite service lane on this stretch  because of which vehicles cut across and drive on the wrond side of the highway!

3-A solution for a poorly managed T-junction right outside our condo that is a traffic nightmare. The picture and video depict that point.

4-Removal of vehicles parked along the service lane that also causes traffic blockages at entry and exit points for residential and commercial complexes

Our experience

The officer we were to meet wasn’t available when we landed up at the Traffic Police office, but a junior policeman was kind enough to hear us out and advise us to catch hold of the Deputy Commissioner Police (DCP) for Traffic who was just about to head out with a pair of smug and smart looking men driving an expensive car! The DCP, upon learning we were residents of the city with a list of concerns, retreated into his office and heard us out. He was a bit high handed, but he did instruct the concerned Assistant Commissioner Police (ACP) to attend to our needs. This gentleman, who was newly posted to Gurgaon and barely familiar with its roads, called in the Traffic Inspector (TI) for our stretch and opened up his duty roster to us in a very transparent manner to discuss how we could delegate people more efficiently for smoother management of the traffic. Unfortunately, the police can’t do much to improve infrastructure and it has to petition the development authorities (HUDA- Haryana Urban Development Authority) or the local government (MCG- Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon) for making any physical improvements including improved street lights, traffic signals, road condition, speed breakers and even for cranes to carry away wrongly parked vehicles!

What we learnt OR  Things to remember while making requests to government departments

  • Government departments are restricted in terms of their jurisdiction, so we need to have a clear knowledge of who can do what
  • Writing letters is not in vain. Officers do get concerned when complaints come in, but follow up meetings and phone calls are important to drive home the points being made
  • A tone of consultation and partnership works better than one of confrontation; we do need to remember that officers are stressed and overworked. In this case, we felt bad pushing the TI Mr Jai Singh further because we all know how hard working and helpful he usually is. But we were upset by the casual attitude of the DCP, who seemed to want to deflect the blame for accidents rather than addressing the problems
  • Persistence is key. We now need to follow through on our requests and join forces with more concerned residents to place relentless pressure on the authorities till the important problems find solution

The real issue is one of poor road sense and attitude

While we pushed the police for solutions and while we are pushing the authorities for infrastructure, the real problem lies in the horrible way people drive in our city. There is a certain culture of driving each city has and in Gurgaon, that culture is aggression and a blatant flouting of traffic rules. We’re all in a blame game about who the offenders are, but the fact is everyone does- executives in big sedans, taxi drivers, young people, local villagers, drivers of public transportation, we are all to blame. We were, on our way back, talking about how we can change this in Gurgaon. How can we change the conversation from They drive badly to Let me not drive badly. Road attitude and etiquette, following traffic rules and thinking about safety for pedestrians and cyclists are important and it would be great to begin an awareness drive towards this.

Do write back if you have innovative ideas about such an awareness campaign or have seen something like this being done in your community, or elsewhere. Would love to hear from you.

We need to demand, adopt, practice a new social code: Looking for the positives- July 15, 2012

I desperately have been wanting to focus on the positives the past few days. As the stories and opinions on the Guwahati molestation case trickled in on Friday and the twitterati made infinite comments on the regressive UP panchayat, I felt my heart sink deeper and deeper. I was delighted, therefore, to hear that khap panchayats can be positive as well. (I’m referring to today’s news coverage of a panchayat in Jind district, Haryana resolving to fight against female foeticide and the institution of dowry.)

In fact, in light of the 73rd amendment and from whatever little I know of community development across the world, local governments are immensely impactful. Chidambaram’s request that State government take action against panchayats that impose undemocratic diktats sound like damage control measures, but can hardly be effective. Once again, I think it is a case of the negatives getting picked up by the media. I am sure panchayats across the nation resolve many situations in justly, and more importantly in a manner that is acceptable to citizens.

Wikipedia tells me that panchayats are in place in some 96 percent of India’s villages and that the gram sabha system in place now is “largest experiment in decentralisation of governance in the history of humanity.” In a nation as large and diverse as India, ground realities and local priorities will always differ hugely from the policy and economic needs as perceive at the Central and State levels. The challenge is in reconciling these differences and establishing a clear line of communication and process.

The conflicts between traditional mindsets and the modern (perhaps more liberal, but hard to say at times!) value system is glaring. Not just in rural India, but in urban situations as well. It is easy for many to correlate the decreasing safety of women to this new social order where men and women socialize more freely. Needless to say, it is easy to impose restraints on women than educating men to honor a basic code of right and wrong. I find it hard to entirely blame panchayats for taking the easy way out. Mostly, they do not have the exposure to know better. There is where campaigns and initiatives to increase awareness should come in. The long-term benefits of creating a secure environment for women to study, work and live even within the family structure, must be communicated to local leaders and citizens alike.

We live in a new India where there is a tremendous drive to prosper. We must learn to use the aspirations of the people to our best advantage. An educated mother makes for substantially improved chances of the second generation succeeding in life. A woman who gets respect in her home nurtures children who have strong values and are more likely to have stable marriages and a normal family life. The world over, family values are given high social priority. It is through this lens that we must talk about women’s rights.

In the same context, the commoditization of women in any form must be strictly censured. The urge for men to control women (wives, daughters, daughters in law, even mothers) in the name of safety would come under the same umbrella. The “:we do it because women don’t know any better’ is an archaic way of thinking and no man who thinks he is fit to live in modern society must subscribe to it.

Who would implement all of this? Us, for starters. And hopefully, in some version of the future, governments and civil society would actively work towards mechanisms to put in place a new social code with the intention to create a world fit to live in.

No value for human life: How I prepared myself to be a thick-skinned Indian citizen! June 24, 2012

The anger at the death of little Mahi (whose lifeless body was rescued from the borewell she fell into 85 hours after she went missing!) across social media is genuine. The anger is, of course, directed at those who let such things happen, but even more so, it is directed at us. At the public memory of Indian newspaper readers and news channel watchers, who have gotten so used to stories of pointless death that we scarcely bat an eyelid anymore!

I always remember it being like this, though. When we were little (I was 8, same as Udai is now) and Indira Gandhi died, I was actually amazed to see so many people crying because someone on TV had died! I simply could not understand it. There were people dying in newspapers and TV all the time. Why did some people get tears and others shrugs? To my eyes at the time, many of the people shot by militants in Punjab or dying in train accidents seemed more like us. People with kids, who went to offices, carried tiffin boxes, wore nondescript check shirts and brown/grey trousers or bleached fading cotton saris. And so their dying seemed somehow to talk about the vulnerability of us. I once dreamt that my parents held hands and jumped off the Worli seaface into the sea…..perhaps a fallout of all the violence, distant and yet surrounding me.

Later, as a teenager in Lucknow, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I clearly remember a few of us took responsibility of a small pinboard in the faculty club, our venue for evenings full on table tennis, carrom and gossip! That pinboard became our canvas for expressing our feelings. We put up a daily tally of lives lost in the J&K insurgency. For months, those figures leapt at us everyday. I don’t remember the reactions of the adults round us, but our group of kids was very much affected by the sheer number of innocents losing their lives to a cause they didn’t perhaps understand or subscribe to fully.

Even then, we were steeling ourselves to become adult Indian citizens. Part of that preparation was developing a thick skin about death, killing the tears before they sprang to the eyes, stopping yourself from caring too much, convincing yourself that there is precious little you can do, so its best to get on with life and not think about the negatives.

It’s not easy to really be like that though. Many of us still get seriously disturbed by death that could be avoided if we were more careful, more sensitive, better organized, more prepared. And while I try and fight the feeling of total helplessness, I rack my brains to think about what I can possible do to change this, the deaths themselves and certainly, the apathy!

Up in flames! Govt needs to make its own buildings safe and set an example- June 23, 2012

Some shocking finds about the Mumbai Mantralaya Fire that has killed 5 and injured more and took over 12 hours to douse. The building that houses the Chief Minister’s office and is the seat of power for the state of Maharashtra, now stands rather gutted.

1- No fire officer was present when the fire tenders reached

2- The fire tenders could not access the building because of badly parked vehicles outside!

3- Fire alarms and sprinklers were defunct

4- The last fire audit took place in 2008 and suggestions went unheeded. “The report mentioned 32 potential hazards such as civil and electrical defects, encroachment due to parking of vehicles in open space around the building, files and old records strewn on the floors, storage of scrap material on all floors, and use of cylinders for cooking on some floors”, according to an RTI activist named Anil Galgali

It is unforgivable for government offices to flout safety requirements, considering it is supposed to regulate and ensure implementation of laws and codes related to safety. When people died in the Uphaar cinema fire in Delhi way back in 1997, citizens were mad. The legal proceedings still carry on. The builder, Ansal, has been in a tight spot, even jailed for the negligence in terms of fire safety.

As far as I am concerned, someone should take the Maharashtra government to task for negligence as well. People died, were severely injured and a public building stands ruined. Public funds will be needed to refurbish/redevelop it. A conviction will send shock waves to governments across Indian states and cities, urge them to pay heed to the upkeep of public infrastructure. They should be setting an example really!

Urgent need for appropriate materials to rebuild burnt jhuggi- ideas welcome! April 2, 2012

Pawan Varma’s ‘When loss is gain’, which I just finished reading brought forth an interesting commentary on how many of us view life and especially deal with loss, trauma and sorrow. Some of us withdraw from life’s small pleasures, believing that it was our unquenchable desire that led to disappointment and loss. Others place their faith in a higher being, and yoyo between God and self pity. A few do learn to move on, finding pleasure and comfort in life. From what I have seen, moving on has a lot to do with showing the door to our infamous companion- the ego so that we can try new things, savour fresh experiences and live again.
For the residents of the slum in project Jalti Jhopdi (do visit our facebook page to like and contribute) however, picking up the threads of life at present is all about dealing with practicalities-rebuilding their homes, finding utensils and clothes, food. They don’t talk about the trauma and the sorrow, but it is there just under the skin covered up with all the urgency of the raw needs of human life.
In two days we have seen a mixed response from people to our appeal for help. A few driven individuals have offered their time and taken initiative, taking care to understand needs and mobilising resources. Others have contributed money and things selflessly and with speed. Many are yet to respond, failing to gather the empathy needed for an act of charity.
Our group is focusing on specific forms of help (kiddie slippers, terracotta pots to store water, temporary tenting to give kids a roof over their heads are on their way to being done and we are targeting utensils as well; another group has teamed with the local mosque to provide gas cylinders, food, clothes, etc). We are facing roadblocks in identifying appropriate material for their roofs and walls. We need low cost, safe, non flammable, light sheets of material that can be tied to the bamboo frames that have already been erected on site. If anyone knows of how to do this, please contact me.
Other roadblocks are toilets and sanitation, plus some sort of cooperative banking system that can help them keep their little amounts of cash safe and provide them credit for specific needs. Addressing these is a long term project, but the opportunity to provide them better shelter should be tapped. Ideas are welcome!

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Gurgaon rape: To bring change, we need sustained effort beyond immediate anger and protests- March 14, 2012

I try and not rant against the system on this blog, but when you read about rape everyday and then it happens in your backyard, it’s just too much provocation! I took a taxi back from the airport close to midnight yesterday and I was glad for the paternal polite sardarji who was my cabbie, while still wondering about whether appearances can be deceptive. I am not a paranoid person, but when brutal incidents happen everyday, it twists your mind, doesn’t it?

And then, to top it all, the police response is to stop women from working in pubs after eight in the evening. Sure, they caught some of the rapists, but I’m not willing to forgive an attitude that resorts to curtailing the freedom of citizens rather than taking measures to increase the safety of our city.

My first reaction, of course, is how easy it is for society (the authorities are reflecting a larger social attitude) to ask women to behave ‘within limits’. Just like recent incidents in which airline staff asked people with disabilities to deplane, the attitude reeks of a mindset in which women are considered weak, disadvantaged and mostly a problem.

Why can’t we do something to promote (among men and potential rapists and everyone) understanding and tolerance, perhaps by creating common platforms to bring people from diverse backgrounds together? Culture and sports, community building activities like planting trees, cleanliness drives…I don’t know. There must be something we can do to stop the ‘us’ and ‘them’ thinking. Urban vs rural, rich vs poor, modern vs traditional, boys vs girls……as a society, we seem to be losing our balance and lashing out against something. And I am, perhaps naively, convinced that rape, brawls and bad driving are symptoms of a problem, while also being problems in themselves and therefore we need to take a larger view and address the issue at many levels.

Of course, there is a disregard for the law and authority, which needs to be addressed by harsher punishments and better policing. But I cannot believe a rapist thinks he is right or isn’t shit scared when the police actually catch him. Then what makes him do it? What makes him not stop? Its insensitivity, the prioritization of his pleasure over anything else, the importance of ‘I’ and our own and the absence of an inclusive sense of community. If I were to actually know a girl who worked in a bar and see her as a normal person trying to earn a living, would I be less likely to rape her? (For that matter, I don’t happen to know a rapist, so its hard to profile one!)

I don’t know how to think all this through. But I do know that citizens have a right to expect governments to act. The action, however, must be long-term and two-pronged and a diverse range of citizen groups must be involved. Protests should convert to some sort of sustained communication, building of trust and spreading the message that crime against anyone is a crime against yourself, your community, your family, your women……..yourself…..

Kahaani laaparwaahi ki: A delightful visual tryst with Kolkata and it’s filthy end! March 11, 2012

As I watched the superbly skilled Vidya Balan in ‘Kahaani’ tonight (film highly recommended), I could not stop admiring the way Sujoy Ghosh has romanced Kolkata in the film. Portrayed in a suitably old world tint, every frame captured the worst of Kolkata and converted it into an endearing visual. Poverty, entangled wires, hand riksha pullers, the jerky motion of the tram, the roadside tea stalls, the winding alleys, the decaying buildings, the traffic and ceaseless mass of humanity. Faces creased with worry, faces that smiled, faces that wore indescribably expressions. I wanted to go there immediately and lose myself in this great city, all by myself, with a sketchpad and camera. Kolkata has been hitting me for the past few months through books, articles and visits by friends and family; it’s beckoning for sure!

Mind still filled with images of lovely Kolkata, what a shock it was for us to step out of the exit into a stairwell that had a ceiling not even 6 feet high! As we walked down the exit stairs, we were met with the most extraordinary amount of filth and litter. One landing had rotting vegetables, presumably supplies that the banquet hall on that floor hadn’t consumed for the wedding dinner they were hosting. Another landing had piles of rubbish. Another had spit stains, yet another had used, discarded plates with wasted food spilling out, another had mattresses piled in it! The stairway was barely lit (anyone could have slipped and fallen), the exits back into the mall were locked, so no one could leave the smelly stairwell even if they wanted to.

Nearing the end of this horrendous journey, I started to take pictures; believe me, these tell only a small bit of the tale (i was unable to go against the flow of traffic to capture the real gems!). Perhaps the romantic street scenes of Kolkata, when met in the flesh, may not seem so beautiful, I realized, as I filled with rage at the irresponsibility of SRS Cinema and Omaxe (this was in the Omaxe Celebration Mall on Sohna Road, Gurgaon). How could they let an entire movie hall full of audiences, who paid hard earned money for tickets to be subjected to such a humiliating experience. The least I could do was document this and here are the pictures to tell the story.

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The age of innocence; Can we help our kids hold on to it and for how long? Feb 06, 2012

Yesterday was Eva’s birthday party and Eva is my daughter’s best friend, neighbor and daily playmate. From the moment the kids woke up, they were in the party mood and wanted to be part of everything, hanging out at the neighboring house watching the balloons go up, the streamers being put, the food being cooked. We had to drag them home for breakfast and barely was she bathed, Aadyaa was back at Eva’s place!

Eva and Aadyaa

As a new mom when my son was two or three, I thought kiddie birthday parties were the most boring events ever. Of course, now things have changed and I look at them with a completely different eye.

Yesterday, I was struck by the innocence of the children, the sheer joy they got from each others’ company and how deep their friendships and loyalties run! All the little ones there (average age 5) went out of their way to make the birthday girl happy, rallying around her and participating in every activity with gusto. Some kids were shy, others were remarkably outspoken and there were some who were simply on their own trip! Aadyaa waited politely for all the ‘guests’ to get their tattoos done before she got hers. Avandeeta thoroughly enjoyed the pasta, eating on her own silently and with great focus. The boys from Eva’s class explored the house, while the girls had great fun at a messy glue and paper sticking activity.

B'day girl with all her friends before the party went into full swing!

Later at dinner, we talked about other older children we know- the teenage variety and the kind of showdowns they were having with their parents. In a classic generation gap situation, the girl we spoke about was being subjected to unreasonable curfew times because she saw hanging out at a coffee shop a worthwhile thing to do while her parents simply do not understand it!

I wondered about what was going through the parents’ mind? Fear for our children and suspicion about their activities are closely interlinked and while no one denies we parents take action only in the best interests of our children, are we, by complicating the rule book, actually forcing them to lose their innocence earlier than necessary? When I tell my child he needs to fear and be suspicious of everyone, I am forcing him to think ‘why’? And kick-starting the sort of thought process that explores a variety of possible negative scenarios.

So what do we do? And how do we achieve the right balance between providing our kids with a secure environment and yet offering them sufficient exposure and presence of mind to recognize danger when they face it? I don’t think we will find an answer, every family would have to set their own rules.

As for me, every night, I look at the innocent faces of my kids when they are asleep, and thank the powers that be (which, ironically, I’m unsure I believe in!) that they experienced another peaceful and happy day!

Under Salander’s skin- Accepting the abnormal, admiring the survivors – Feb 03, 2012

Halfway through the 3rd novel of the Millenium trilogy, I am deeply delving into Salander’s psyche. At work, we are trying to put together a social assessment for a project on urban housing. So I’ve been spending a long time trying to analyze what life means to vulnerable groups like women, the elderly, SC/STs, the very poor (those who earn below Rs 5000 per month per household), religious minorities, etc.

In the trilogy, Steig Larsson is making a comment on how society (read producers and consumers of media) find it easy to condemn anybody who appears different, unlike the majority, unlike ‘us’! His book is about the misuse of power, about facing the reality that even the most evolved societies have their share of psychopaths and wierdos; and about how human nature is hopelessly intertwined with a desire to dominate and humiliate others while pleasing the self.

We see proof of this everyday as soon as we open the newspaper each morning. India’s urban areas, especially metropolis, are experiencing an acute awareness and fear of crime. Crime against women (rape, dowry-related torture, harassment, eve teasing, discrimination at work) is a significant fear. Violent crimes related to property, family and personal disputes, theft scream out from the headlines everyday. Honor crimes, more specific to our society, make many of us hang our head in shame, while a significant part of the population considers this a way of life.

The  book also points out that individuals who have been through traumatic experiences through childhood and early adulthood develop severe complexes and exhibit behavioral idiosyncrasies throughout their lives. Lisbeth certainly does in the book. I know of many people in real life whose present behavior is a result of traumatic experiences in the past.

My grandmother’s extreme stubbornness (she is 97 and does exactly as she pleases, including insisting on heating her bathing water over a chulha!), can easily be attributed to the fact that she widowed at 30 with the responsibility of 4 young children. My father documents this in his autobiography ‘Metamorphosis’ and spoke about his analysis to me often. Sometimes, when we try to reason with her to accept something we think will make her life easier (a new appliance, for instance), her face clouds over and we know she will outrightly reject the suggestion. We can only imagine what is playing through her mind at that point! And because we love her immensely, most of the time, we simply let the matter go, only to try again another time (I can see my cousins, uncles and aunts who live near her smiling at this!)

We are surrounded by people with traumatic personal histories; how much do we know and do we empathize? How do we be sensitive without being patronizing? I, for one, immensely admire those I know to have survived and rationalized these experiences. Even more, I admire those who are able to share and talk about them honestly and I have seen how they can be an inspiration to others who are yet to face their demons, whatever they may be…and don’t we all have them?

We deserve responsible policing and safe cities- Jan 13, 2012

It’s Friday, the 13th and I’m not scared of the friends from the world beyond, but the weirdos from our own planet! Two stories reported by friends this week outline the precariously dangerous lives we lead in the urban environs of Delhi. One woman friend’s car was stopped by motorcyclists, who threatened and verbally abused her in a state of inebriation. Only her crisis management skills got her out of that situation safely. Another friend told me about a gory incident in which guys in an auto teased a woman two-wheelerist. They then lodged a stick on the handle of her scooty, bringing it down and dragging her on the tarmac. No one stopped to help and the girl needs cosmetic surgery and is nursing a broken jaw as well!

Stuff like this is a nightmare; we all (and its not only women, I know men friends who have faced worse) hope to God we aren’t involved in any such situation. We can talk endlessly about why these things are happening. In my view, these are clear fallouts of rapid, unplanned urbanization; the clash of conflicting cultures and lifestyles and above all, a large young, unemployed, direction-less population.

The problem is no one is addressing these issues. These situations need a two-fold response; swift disciplinary action by the police and a parallel awareness and outreach campaign that goes out to urban villages, low-income settlements, RWAs and even corporate organizations in the city.

The outreach should:

1- clearly outline what is wrong

2- publicize a zero-tolerance policy

3- set up a complaint/counseling cell & encourage people to approach it

4- hold workshops to sensitize people about what to do in such a situation, and to talk about their experiences openly

However, all of this will only stand good if there is a committed backing from the police force and political class. The Gurgaon police however, in a recent interview, blamed the deteriorating crime scenario on “migrants” and that seriously confused me! The large majority of Gurgaon’s population would come under this banner, rich and poor, illiterate and super-educated alike! It’s easy to target the poor (and I mean economically impoverished) Bengali and Bihari migrants, but who disciplines the moneyed, lawless testosterone-charged local youths who brandish desi guns and strut around like they still own the land the rest of us live on? Doesn’t law apply to everyone? And since the city is one of the highest tax generating areas in the country, what right does the police have to differentiate between locals and migrants, given many of us migrants pay taxes here? Whatever protection we need, we are entitled to it, right?

I know this sounds like a rant….my apologies. I also know that the perception of crime can be vastly greater than the reality. However, when the authorities make excuses instead of coming down hard on goons, it doesn’t instill much confidence in citizens. Living in gated communities and stepping into a lawless hell outside your gates doesn’t make for sensible living. We all need to work harder and make more noise for those in power to understand, recognize and act on this!