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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.

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We need a no tolerance attitude towards bad driving- Feb 21, 2012

When you wake up to news of disastrous car crashes two days in a row, you know its time to seethe about the poor traffic sense of the average Indian. Yes, poor road sense is one of the defining features of Indian urbanity- shocking, irritating and amusing, all at the same time!

This morning, as I drove back after dropping my daughter to school, I encountered some classic cases of road misbehavior in a short 15-minute drive. A smart executive was attending to his urgent business call while behind the wheel bang in the center of the road, hogging one half of two lanes. Clearly, the call was more important than his life or other peoples’ time! Impatient drivers continued to drive across a four-way crossing long after their lights had turned red, drastically bringing the time down for our side of the traffic to cross the intersection. Clearly, they needed to get to work before all the rest of us! I could go on…you get the drift, I’m sure!

The thing is, we all condone this sort of behavior. If not indulging in it, we certainly turn a blind eye when our cabbies, drivers or colleagues do the crazy stuff on the roads. Yet, we tut-tutted for real this morning when we read the front page news about two people being run over and killed by a Swift Dezire gone nuts. The media highlighted, of course, the fact that the deed was done by a car cleaner who had driven off with his master’s car!  The fact that many of us who are masters of cars ourselves drive irresponsibly is, apparently, besides the point. Case in point: Yesterday, we read about the guy who killed himself speeding his Lamborghini on narrow, grade-separated city roads!

We need a lot more awareness, stricter licensing and policing, education about road safety and rules starting school level to make things better. But how do we address the larger malaise of impatience and irresponsibility, a feeling that there will be no consequences to bad behavior? How do we understand that on the roads, irresponsibility could mean harm and even death and that someone else may have to pay for our mistakes? And how do we stop blaming the ‘other’ and look to fix ourselves up first!

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