Is the behaviour of citizens on our roads indicative of how we respect our nation (or) national space?

I write this post with an acute sense of anguish and helplessness. I was trying to cross the road the other day and preferred to take the zebra crossing at the end of the road. Dutifully, I started walking when the light turned green and to the utter shock of my life one motorcyclist whizzed past, jumped the red light at the signal and would have almost hit me had I not ducked him and his bike. What do you do when fellow-citizens mistake the regular main roads or high streets as grand prix racetracks? Several stories abound like this: it’s a miracle that the accident rate is where it is (i.e. not higher) in our cities.

Our citizens are now delighted that the vehicles available for sale in the Indian market and visible on the roads have long passed the old models of cars and bikes of the pre-Maruti era. Now everything that we own that moves is besides being a mode of transport also a personality statement. Along with globalization and increased business, we now have many more commercial vehicles plying our roads. What does this mean? Less space on our old roads and almost no footpaths. Few reworked roads have become expressways and flyovers. By and large the new volume of traffic is still operating within the older confines. The poor public transport system has also led to a steep increase in the number of privately owned vehicles. One would think that this would result in a greater sensitivity and alertness on the part of our citizens to manage road space in a careful and responsible manner.


Cut to the chase. Here begins the blame game. The motorcyclist blames the car-driver for chaos, the car-drivers blame the auto-rickshaws, the latter blames the motorcyclist and they all take turns in blaming the big lorries, buses, trailers and we cannot omit the cyclist who launches into a break dance in the midst of all this. Our commandos can learn a trick or two from our motorists: the calm of a main road can be shaken with a screeching halt of a vehicle because of a surprising intruder from a side-lane. What happens to our people when they sit behind a wheel or are at the helm of a bike defeats my understanding. There is a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde problem there. The feel of the wheel and the roar of the engine transform an otherwise well-meaning citizen into a sort of ‘beast’ almost who terrifies all on the road. Again, there is some confusion in the minds of our citizens if repeated collective honking qualifies for the symphony of some orchestra or pure cacophony that pierces and hurts our ear-drums. That kind of noise-pollution does add to our stress levels. So, our be-good, do-good vehicle rider has to have eyes in the front, back and the sides of his head. Whoever said, we needed to be trained to multi-task. Anyone who has driven on our roads and followed the rules knows what that means.

There are a couple of other players whom we cannot omit in all this. The pedestrian! Those who have travelled abroad have seen the streets of Europe and Singapore where every pedestrian crossing is activated with the help of a switch enabling pedestrians to move across smoothly. In India on the contrary, struggling with kids and even grandparents, there is the other type of pedestrian who choses to exhibit what a dreamer he is. These pedestrians are the ones with complete disregard for vehicles moving on the road, jaywalking anywhere and everywhere, putting the vehicles and themselves at great risk! Then of course, is the contribution of telecommunications to road risk in the form of the omnipresent mobile phone and single-handed driving, again putting several people at risk. The best part of all the above is if anyone in his (in)sane mind choses to correct the other party, there would be a slew of abuse, interestingly and obviously by the wrong-doer. This abuse by the party making the mistake is clearly a defense-mechanism to cover up his/her error. Immediately, peace-loving citizens try to play down the incident for the sheer fear of it becoming a full-blown case of road rage in which they would not even want to be involved as witnesses. Several have been the cases reported of arguments between motorists becoming cases of road rage and turning fully violent with sad consequences. How often would we also have not noticed the haywire movement of vehicles coming in from the opposite direction not being given a margin of space to move forward resulting in a stalemate or a complete jam?

How can I omit the other culprit? Vehicle exhaust. The famed emitter of fumes, carbon-dioxide/CFC’s, keeping our doctors on their toes and resulting in loss of health to individuals and man-hours to our organizations. I am very allergic to these fumes and if I happen to inhale them at any point, it takes me 2-3 days to recover. What in the name of the Lord makes the owners of these vehicles think they can get away playing with the health of their fellow-citizens without paying a penalty beats my imagination! One has been given to understand that in certain countries there is a fine of more than a thousand USD to ensure that the person gets his vehicle in order and does not repeat such behavior. Some point to the poor enforcement of traffic rules and corruption that prevails in certain quarters that makes public safety and health a casualty.

In the middle of all this, is the spectacle of our population who use the roadsides as public washrooms, throw rubbish all over the place and finally spit anytime anyplace.

I recollect the title of a nice book “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten” (by Robert Fulghum). An important point: that’s where our earliest lessons on how to use the road were taught to us. In those textbooks in primary schools, there were the instructions and diagrams on how to cross, how to treat a traffic signal etc. If we followed those instructions today, we would be in great difficulty(?!!) My friends are amused to no end when I say that when I take the first step to cross a road, I look both ways. :)For you can no longer assume on our streets and roads what the lanes indicate and what the behaviour of the motorist is! It seems all are culpable and all are in a state of denial. Speaking of traffic-signals, the erratic nature of their functioning in several places leaves much to improve upon. I have often wondered why at some very critical junctions and points there is neither the traffic signal functioning nor anyone manning that point. Utter chaos prevails in such places! Truly as believing people, we, Indians have the hand of God helping us. 🙂  Given such a context that I have attempted to describe in this brief contribution, it should be no surprise to us that our main roads are full of long and winding traffic jams delaying the movement of people. Just saying that the state of affairs of road behaviour in one city is better than another does not condone us; likewise comparisons between developing countries where unplanned urbanization has also taken its toll also does not help us.

Our homes are our private spaces. Once we step out into the streets, roads and expressways then we are onto what are known as public places or what we can also call national spaces. As an extension, if one were to see that public place also as national space, we do great injustice and unfairness to how we should conduct ourselves in these places/spaces. We take pride in propping up statues of our yesteryear leaders along all these roads. For a minute, if one were to imagine that they were looking down and observing as to what was happening on our roads, they would be very saddened. For this was not the nation for whose freedom they fought for. Everyone today wants to get to their destinations in the fastest manner possible even if it is reckless and even if it is at the cost of God forbid, the life of a fellow-citizen. The value of life has thus diminished. That is not the value-system our forebears bequeathed us. In sum, the meaning of responsible conduct on our roads would go a long way in establishing a life-enhancing, less-stressful and clearly a healthier society.


  1. Quote
    Sukumar (subscribed) said December 14, 2009, 3:34 pm:

    Interesting rant. Our citizens have an appalling civic and societal consciousness. When we realize that this lack of civic sense extends to our educated denizens also, this problem seems Himalayan.

    Maybe as you say instead of civic sense, we should cultivate a sense of pride in public spaces as our national space. Good one.

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    What do you feel is the exact reason(s) for the problems like this? I dont know if you are working in a s/w company. But many of those in this sastwingees community are. We are supposed to dissect a problem, and locate the reason, and build a solution 🙂 ..

    In that aspect, let’s list out the reasons for this problem.. There is no point in criticising our people, or comparing ours with those of the western cities.

    Let’s approach this with problem/solution mindset.

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    Vamsi (subscribed) said December 15, 2009, 5:56 am:

    Very good post ( and saddening one) Abdul. I never realized the chaos we are in until I visited India after 18 months of working in US. I could not drive even a mile. It is like a natural instinct taken away. I felt it was a miracle that I survived for so many years(sometimes shamelessly not following rules myself). I think the gravity of the situation can be understood by the fact that it is often educated also not following some basic rules. And what example we set to children (no matter what they teach at school, kids observe/follow parents more than anybody else)

    May be we as a nation are not mature enough to use national spaces. I think we should seriously implement affordable public transportation that is effective. It is foolish for us to follow developed countries model as we cannot afford to spend a huge budget on oil import. We can only go so far. (could not resist this comment particularly when there is the UN Summit on Climate Change going on at Copenhagen, Denmark).

    Senthil -the comparison is inevitable considering the fact that we are aping the western solutions. We probably take convenient aspects of the western development like faster/ better cars etc, without thinking of the underlying infrastructure that supports it.

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    hi Abdul,

    Correct observations. But I feel it has a lot to do with supply/demand/population and survival. If there is enough or everyone then no one would fight. Alas! that is never the case anywhere including roads.

    But I have an observations about U.S. On a average people follow rules and only cross at signals. They follow lanes while driving and don’t honk.

    But an area like New York where there is lot of rush and people are in a hurry. I saw the following
    1. Cutting lanes without indicators
    2. Honking pretty randomly.
    3. In fact one of my collegues in Seattle , told me he asked his wife to honk less as she had the habit as she was from New Jersey and used to drive to work New York daily.

    I dont believe this has anything to with national pride, it is a habit not a good one definetely. If there was enough space on the roads I think this will be reduced to a great extent. It is a combination of awareness and some space on the roads getting created.

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    /** We probably take convenient aspects of the western development like faster/ better cars etc, without thinking of the underlying infrastructure that supports it.

    Exactly.. The western nations have a continuity of historical independance. Thus the present western cities evolved over a period of time, with ample amount of time to plan, resource to build. The administrative and political structure has a continuity for centuries, which means the people who have ruling sense and experience were at the helms of the government.

    Today we have a written constitution for india. But in England, there is no written constitution. Which means, the present day protocols were inherited by successive generations.

    But if we look at india, the power was given to the people who had no experience in ruling or administration, who in turn had excluded all the ruling class of india. Historically, we find that the princely states had better governance and prosperity than those regions directly ruled by britishers. Instead of accomodating those rulers in to the new free india, they were dethroned and made in to nothing. First Nehru neglected them, and later Indra Gandhi, stripped them of all allowances and recognition.

    Thus we had people without ruling sense at the helm of affairs, and because of that, there is no proper agenda, no capacity planning, no vision, and no indigineous sense of development.

    As you have rightly pointed out, because we aped the western models, we are in this state of confusion. We did not learn anything, nor we did put any effort in understanding the western systems. To quote a best example, for the first 40 years after independance, we blindly followed socialism, which led us to almost bankruptcy. THen we blindly followed globalisation (the chinese model), and we did not plan properly for such rapid development.

    Now, whom do we hold accountable for all these?

  6. Quote

    /** If there was enough space on the roads I think this will be reduced to a great extent. **/

    Kumaran.. its another important reason for the road congestion. Not even in roads.. If there is no capacity planning within our campus, the same effect will happen.

  7. Quote

    Great Post Abdul. This post somehow reminded me the movie “Anniyan”. I was in Mumbai for 8 months for a project during 1997-98, i stayed at an apartment, where outside (i mean the staircase) was full of “pan parag” spit and awkward smell but each house inside was rich,clean and luxurious. The same person living in apartment knows the neatness and importance of neatness but as soon as they step out the home they lost control, start spitting and even make things nasty at road. I started thinking about it, I believe the main reason for this behavior is “broken window syndrome”. All are doing so i’m also doing, everybody making a mess so do i, the system is already broken so i make it worse.

    To fix this broken window, we need a strict laws and hefty fines but drawback of it is corruption, people give some bribe to escape from hefty fine. Other way of fixing broken window is, we need to create some volunteer groups to fix the things at our common place. I used to notice at big U.S malls, where people throw some waste at floor but with in 30 secs a janitor comes and cleans it with smile, next time the same person move his/her butt a little to throw the waste in trash can. The same with theme parks,sports centers where people clean it as soon as one makes a mess, so those places are very neat. For traffic we have to rely on fines and teach our kids common traffic sense at school level.


  8. Quote

    Nice post Abdul. Your post is very relevant to the modern era. The erratic traffic on our roads definitely shows the complete disregard for rules. This has led to a big surge in accidents which could have been easily averted had we followed some fundamental road rules.
    As the world becomes more and more commercial and the mad rush for wealth increases, the basic human values, let alone road rules, have nose dived. The bigger worry is the fact that our ossified attitude. Our lenient punishment system coupled with innumerable inherent loopholes is also to blame for this sorry state.

    Here we need to ask a pertinent question to ourselves, a question that marks the tradeoff between the transportation based on need and transportation based on pride and prestige. Unfortunately in this materialistic world the latter rules the roost.

    But if we consider that traffic problem is here to stay, then we need to look at the solution side of things.
    Traffic problem calls for better civic planning, better roads, meaningful budgeting for anticipated problems, a good drainage system to prevent stagnation of water etc.

    But, boy, all these are easier said than done!!!

    Also the channelizing of the budgeted money into proper hands is very important. I still remember that during the tenure of the NDA government, the then urban development minister H. Ananth Kumar tabled a report in the parliament in 1999 which revealed that between 1991-96, there were as many as 6 major road relaying projects in New Delhi that were deadlocked in implementation stage itself because the project papers were playing pass the buck game form one ministry to anther for nearly 4 years and even after the eventual project signoff, the implementation of the project was marred as the budgeted money did not reach the intended people and was gobbled off midway through its agonizing path of project implementation.

    The need of the hour is to look into all these aspects and bring out a viable model that would be a coalescence of all the possible solutions to this problem.

  9. Quote

    Thank you very much Sukumar. In every country, the concept of the public sphere and national are very closely interconnected. I wondered for all our breast-beating about the nation where the national stands in our use of the roads.

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    Thank you Vamsi.

    The cue on affordable public transportation is a golden one because once we have a solid, efficient and eco-friendly bus and rail mass transport system in place, then the number of vehicles on the road may come down.

    Some countries have a heavy tax structure for owning a private vehicle that far outstrips the cost of purchase of say the new automobile itself.

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    Thanks Kumaran for your valuable observations.

    I did not use the term ‘national pride’ in as much as ‘national space’. Space is the kind of relationship that people have with their physical and social environment.

    While population and congestion etc are indeed factors there is a behavioural relationship here of people to space that needs to be studied. As I have mentioned, there is a sense of haste to reach the destination without an eye to what a fellow-citizen on the same road is going through.

  12. Quote

    Thank you very much Subba for your kind words and if I may say graphic and detailed observations.:)

    Since this post is on behaviour on roads, I do not want to entirely diagress but there is one moment when societal conciousness among our citizens reaches a high: and ie when there are alerts of pandemics. Several years ago when there was a scare of outbreak of plague in Surat, people kept their interiors spic and span but the rubbish outside the compound walls would just not go away. And no amount of travelling in safe vehicles could safeguard people against the germs. It is sad but true that such health alerts are required to awaken our citizenry.

  13. Quote

    Another important reason is the lack of ownership. Even within our campus, there is no ownership of an employee’s bay or the floor, because of frequency of change in project, where employees move to different bay in different floor or building. However, due to efficient, responsive and accountable administration department, our campus is clean, and maintained properly. Suppose, if the admin dept is like our beurocracy, its most probably that our campus, bays and floors will not be maintained properly.

    Now, applying this analogy to the social problems.. Who owns the chennai city? Do we own it? Not only chennai, but other metros and tier-II cities. There is no ownership, and hence no sense of ownership. When there is no sense of ownership, there cannot be any behavioral responsibility, and hence the chaos in the roads and other public spaces.

    Let’s leave the ownership of the chennai city.. Do we have the ownership of atleast the street we live in? Do we have the right or freedom to maintain our street as per our convenience? Never..

    There is an interesting comparison i would like to make b/w villages and cities. In villages, every villager has the participation in village affairs, and hence everyone have the ownership of the decisions taken. Enforcement of the decision is enforce through peer pressure, where every one follows that and makes other follow it. This is what called consensus based administration.

    However the cities and towns are modelled (infact “Aped” 🙂 ) after western systems and hence they are centralised and authoritarian based. ie, some person is authorised to look after the city/streets, and he is accountable only to his superiors. The people have no role in it. The administration takes decision on its sole discretion. The difference b/w western system and the aped indian system is that in western system, even though decision is taken by the authority, they have the sense of purpose in it, and hence consider the feedback and opinion of the people living in that city. Whereas in india, the sense of purpose is not present and the bureaucrats are isolated from common masses. (Do we know the councilor in our area???)

    Thus we failed to learn from our traditional consensus based administrative system which existed for thousands of years. Such consensus based decision making is evident from the organisational structure of budhism. So it must have been present even before Buddhism.

  14. Quote

    ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde problem’ aptly describes the behaviour of otherwise well-meaning citizens on the road.
    PTI today reported a road rage related death in Mumbai where the victim was dragged under the car and brought to death just because the victim overtook the offender in his car.Variations of such incidents should be happening here in every cities.
    Instead of govts vying to provide Nanos with land at the cheapest possible price and media glamourizing things making an impression that the development index of the country is the number of middle class owning a car, let them compete to provide top quality public transport system& service,roads and infrastructure.

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    Krithika said January 25, 2010, 5:49 pm:

    A very good post highlighting the anxiety of a pedestrian who tries to follow traffic rules! As you say, it is very true that it is only by God’s saving hand that we are saved everyday that we use our public roads. Now, with the arrival of Nano and with the Software Industry bringing in change in the middle class lifestyle increasing the number of upper middle class familiies, every other person owns a car in our locality, but alas! there is no parking space!

    The government should take some measures to plan and widen roads and create parking space and ‘remind’ the citizens to follow road rules through some awareness programs. We citizens must also take it upon us to spread this message to our fellow-citizens and our next generation.

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