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Death Wish

india Updated: Jul 06, 2009 01:59 IST
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They’re crossing the tracks, they’re making a dash across the road though the pedestrian sign is blinking red, they’re jumping signals and taking U-turns on the sea link, they’re driving after they drink.

It’s illegal, often downright dangerous and it could even cost them their life. Yet Mumbaiites carry on blithely, oblivious to danger or the disapproval of the law.

It’s taken the police a three-year crusade against drink driving to rein in offenders. Now the drive against crossing the tracks is throwing up hundreds of shame-faced commuters. But thousands more continue to tempt death every day.

Why? Is it the perpetual scramble against time? A disregard for the rules? Or plain recklessness?

“In Mumbai,” says counselling psychologist Pradnya Aklekar, “people tend to disregard rules and regulations because there is a sense of anonymity. If people around them recognised them, they would hesitate to break the rules.”

And that’s exactly what the railway police is working on, by making offenders call up home to tell their families they’ve been caught.

Prakash More (17), a Class 12 student of Siddharth College, would tell you what that feels like. “My father has given me so many lectures about not crossing the tracks,” he admits. Having railway officials call up his home to inform them he was caught doing exactly that on June 29, was so embarrassing, More swears, “I will never do it again, not even in an emergency.”

Clinical psychologist Archana Samarth adds another view: “It’s not as if people are not aware of the risk involved in crossing the railway tracks, jaywalking, drink driving or any other rule they violate. But they think getting caught or being badly injured happens to others, not to them.”

The first time usually happens when they are rushed for time or face an emergency, she explains. They reason that they will do it just that once, but when they emerge unscathed, they are emboldened. They tell themselves they’ve done it in the past and can do it again, provided they take a calculated risk. “When they take a calculated risk a number of times, they become confident and often overconfident. And overconfidence can lead to an error in judgment. That’s when accidents happen,” says Samarth.

However, say the police, almost all offenders will insist it was the first time they had ever crossed the tracks/ jumped a signal/driven when drunk.

Like Kurla resident,Kazi Shahnawaz (24), who admits with the classic Mumbai excuse, “I know crossing the tracks is illegal. I always take the foot overbridge. But I was already very late for office and had to rush to catch a bus after that, so I took the short cut.” Shahnawaz ,who works at Kalina, was rounded up on June 29.

Some cheeky offenders even come up with suggestions that shift the responsibility for their safety to the police. Rais Akbar Shaikh (19), who was caught at Byculla railway station on May 20, remarks, “It does not serve much purpose if the railway police catches hold of us after we have crossed the tracks. If they do so just as we are going to, they can at least prevent us from breaking the law.”

The police clearly have a task on their hands with attitudes such as this. “The general attitude is to look for short cuts and to their convenience,” observes S.C. Parhi, senior Divisional Security Commissioner of the Central Railway. “Even on the roads, people prefer to jump over road dividers than use the zebra crossing,” he adds.

SS Solunkhe, deputy commissioner of police (traffic), echoes the opinion: “There are footpaths constructed for pedestrians but they will still walk on the road, and jaywalk instead of using the zebra crossing.”

Ways and means

The success of the drives against drink driving and crossing tracks show that it is possible to rein in the Mumbaiites’ recklessness. While drink driving has invited severe penalties, including a stint in jail, the campaign against crossing the tracks has many approaches — from being fined or jailed to the less severe on-measures like on-the-spot counselling, an embarrassing call to the family or even being handed a rose. Shriniwas Mudgerikar, Chief Public Relations Officer of the Central Railways, says, “Though our drive is mainly educational and aimed at creating awareness among the public, we want to drive home the point to commuters that they could face penal action.” Mudgerikar, however, adds that the offenders are taken to court only if they refuse to pay the fine.

The Western Railway, says its Chief Public Relations Officer S.S. Gupta, has built up awareness through “street plays at railway stations, lectures in schools and the media.”

However, they are unforgiving once the law has been broken. “We do not believe in encouraging any individual once he/she has violated the law. Commuters caught trespassing are either fined or awarded a jail sentence,” asserts Gupta.

Says Samarth, “To effect a change, people need to be made constantly aware of the fallout of their actions. There has to be an emotional tug, with the message that you are endangering the future of your loved ones, too, by say, crossing the tracks.”

Adds Aklekar, “They have to also realise that children see adults crossing the track and think that emulating them makes them an adult.”

Solunkhe admits, “It is not easy to change human nature. It has taken us about three years, but we have changed attitudes with regards to drink driving.” Now the long arm of the law is extending its reach and Mumbaikars are finally learning to respect the rules.

(With inputs from Megha Sood)

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