For years, someone has been drawing white lines on our roads. The idea is to create lanes perhaps and other illusions. But there is something about surrendering to order that makes the Indian feel lame, naïve, foolish, amateurish, urbane, formal, or even white. Absolute freedom is the right to animal disorder and we are accustomed to that as members of the freest civic society in the world. And when we do wish to follow the rules we observe the truth that in a moral system, as traffic is even in India, an innate jerk would have a clear advantage, the reason why the drunk thug in the Fortuner usually gets his way. Indian roads reward the rogues, why must we be anything else?
Academics who ask what makes Indians Indian usually search for the unifying quality in flattering virtues. But, often, Indians of all types are united in disgrace — in how they drive, for instance. We do admire the aesthetics of order though in other nations. In those photographs of famous traffic jams in middle-income countries that show vehicles stranded in neat straight lines. Is there a particular threshold of per-capita or median income that a civilisation has to achieve for its people to accept that lanes are real things? In any case it is cruel for India to wait because order, even Indians would concede, greatly reduces the chances of accidents, and Indian roads are among the most deadly in the world.
Over 146,000 Indians died in road accidents last year, or over 400 a day, according to the latest statistics of the transport ministry. The actual number might be much more. In 2012, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, nearly 140,000 people died in road accidents. The World Health Organization had estimated that the actual figure was higher by about 100,000. Tens of thousands are injured every day.
There are several theories Indians offer as to why they behave the way they do on the roads. Among them is the hypothesis that a society that was born out of a civil disobedience movement would tend to defy authority long after the colonisers have been evicted. Another theory is that as India rewards the street smart in every walk of life people try to be so on the roads, too. There might be some truth in these but a more convincing answer is that sometimes national character is almost entirely economics. Across the world and history, nations that share or once shared India’s economic circumstances drive or used to drive as badly as us. Even so, India’s problem is unique.
Never has a nation as poor as India owned so many vehicles, not even China. There is always a correlation between a democracy’s economic progress and its ability to enforce rules and create safe infrastructure. When the United States was almost as poor as India, in the early 20th century, it had just a few thousand cars. India has millions.
India’s upper classes have successfully created many islands so that they do not have to come into conflict with the other kind. We don’t watch even Hindi films in the same theatre anymore. But we cannot escape the roads. Accidents are so common in the great republic that many of them, we know, are actually perfect murders. Millionaires die, public figures, too. Even politicians in cars that have red beacons die. Former rural development minister Gopinath Munde was in the backseat of his official car when he died. It was early morning then in Delhi, the traffic was light, which is more dangerous than a congested road. He had been in an accident before and in that instance too he was in a red-beacon car.
His death, naturally, moved politicians. They realised, once again, they can protect themselves from terrorists in ways that are beyond the fortunes of the average citizen but they are road mortals. An emotional Harsh Vardhan, then the Union health minister, amused all Indians by asking them to wear seatbelts even if they were in the backseat. Munde was not wearing his at the time of his death.
Since Munde’s death, the Modi government has been making noises about road safety but as far as we can see the roads are only getting more dangerous. Some of the solutions are indisputable. Driving etiquette requires a campaign more powerful than Swachh Bharat. And traffic police, across the nation, have to be more than just clowns who hide behind a pillar and pounce on motorists. To begin with they must look and dress like officers who deserve respect. The Modi government is contemplating fines that hurt and prison terms that are really prison terms. But with the quality of cops it would take some effort to terrify Indians in India. India has managed to do that though in other arenas. Tax-collection, for instance.
In effect, over the years, tens of thousands of Indians have died on the roads because governments have neglected urban public transport. For decades, as the middle-class and the rich built their islands, which included ever lengthening cars, public transport was imagined as a political favour to the poor. Most of India’s public transport systems, including Mumbai’s famous trains, are a form of torture. You sense not only inefficiency in these vehicles but also contempt.
For long the idea of air-conditioning what the poor use was scoffed at. It is even now but the meaning of public transportation has gone back in time. The future of all major Indian cities involves public transportation that would bring together, as passenger trains once did, the many layers of society. As a result, billions of rupees are being invested in more comfortable trains and buses. That would, among other things, save thousands of lives that have escaped the Indian roads.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People. The views expressed are personal.