Monday, November 05, 2007

Conversation with a traffic policeman

I am not for a minute suggesting that I am a perfect man, but as far as traffic sense is concerned, I can’t help shake the feeling I'm Mister India! And the scores of people that I drive beside, who weave into and around the potholed roads of first Mumbai, and now Chennai(I recently shifted from the former location to the latter), only serve to strengthen that feeling.

I travel around 13 kms to work everyday by bike, and rarely not get into an argument with a motorist who breaks the law, be it when he honks his horn incessantly from behind me because I would refuse to budge from the stop line, when the red light is still on, or be it because he would take an unannounced left turn from my right just in front of me, leaving my poor disc brakes to work overtime. One shocking piece of argument that I get from many people around me is this "Come on! What do you think this is? America? This is how people will be, and you better get adjusted to it." And this, coming from people high up in the hierarchy from even the respected software firm that I work for.

Vadapalani is a major junction in Chennai and invariably I am held up for sometime at that place. The traffic density and traffic sense in that place is so bad that people start moving forward a full 15 seconds (and I am not exaggerating) before the light turns green! And this, right in front of the traffic policeman, who stands as if they are doing a very normal thing. I once logged onto the Chennai traffic police website, lodged a complaint, and gave some suggestions on how the traffic situation can be improved, but as I expected, they got lost in the wide world of the Internet.

Today, unable to control myself further I drove my bike right into the Vadapalani police station and asked a policeman in charge of traffic if I could talk to him for sometime. He readily agreed. The following is an excerpt from the conversation we had:

Me: Why do you think there is so much traffic indiscipline here in this junction? And why can't you take action against erring motorists? Especially those who jump the signal much before it turns red?
Cop: Come with me... (Leading me towards the junction), See, if the uneducated make mistakes, I can understand, but if so many educated people make mistakes and that too such glaring ones, what can we do?

Me: (Pointing towards the event in question), Look, even as we speak, in front of you there are at least 50 motorists who are jumping the signal. This is what I was referring to. See, even now the signal has not turned green.
Cop: That is the problem, you can control a single person, but can’t control a mob. How many people can I book at one go? Where is the place to hold all of them? And do you know a unique problem that we face? There are people who file petitions against us saying we constantly stop motorists citing some rule or the other that they have broken and consequently forget about traffic regulation in the junction. Not stopping with that, they also add that we stop motorists just so we can earn some money illegally by taking bribes.

Me: See, I have many suggestions and I want you to hear them out and tell me why you should not implement those. To begin with, we can have one person each in all the four corners of the road and make sure that simple rules like stopping before the stop line and walking only on the pedestrian crossing, are not flouted. And say, three or four times in a day, bring traffic to a complete standstill using the red lights and make announcements highlighting the importance of following traffic rules and how in that particular junction, any irregularities from the citizens wont be tolerated by the police.
Cop: What you say is you see that cop there (Pointing out to an elderly policeman). He has been in the field for more than 15 years now, I too have been in service for a very long time and we have tried many tricks in the book, but not many have worked. I had some ideas about five years back. I wondered why people who break traffic rules should not be exposed to the public, shown on TV, or their photos published in the newspaper, so that they are ashamed for their mistakes. That itself would be punishment enough for them. Recently I saw this program on TV which showed similar ideas being put to practice in the USA. I had such forward thinking in those days itself.

The problem in our country is that well educated people like you run away to software industries and other big private firms and there are not many people who enter politics. Please understand that people like me are at the lowest rung in the policy making ladders and have virtually no say in such issues. If things like what you said have to come to fore, then the policy makers should have that kind of a vision. People who enter politics in India are literally the scum of the society, those who drop out of school after 8th or 9th standard, those who don’t find proper jobs. Not many are visionaries.

And the idea that you mentioned about appointing policemen in each of the four directions, we tried that some days back. That particular day not a single soul broke the law. And we have to pay the additional people that we had appointed that day to monitor traffic; it came to around Rs 10,000 for that single day alone. And since very few break the rules that day, we collected only around Rs 8000, so imagine the government’s loss if it tries to implement this in all junctions.

Let me narrate one particular incident to you. There was this guy who jumped the signal and when caught he said that there was virtually no traffic on either side of the road and that’s why he did it. The cop who caught him tried to draw an analogy and asked him if he would misbehave with his friend’s wife if there were no lock in his (friend’s) house? There started the trouble. The policeman became irritated because of the answer that the errant driver had given and hence slightly crossed his limit while retorting, but the public don’t understand this. They don’t understand that we are also human beings entitled to emotions. They don’t understand that there are, among us too, people who want to see a better traffic situation in this city.
Immediately that driver went complaining to some higher authority that a public servant swore at him and that he didn’t respect him and what not! And of course, the fact that that motorist erred in the first place got lost in this melee and the policeman was reprimanded severely.

Me: That is so sad. But surely not everyone is like that. And not every time do policemen swear at people. So a majority of the errant drivers can still be booked under law.
Cop: See, a cop's job is like plaster on a wall, it might peel off anytime. He might get dismissed or suspended or even taken out of service forever. People always know some babu or the other and a call comes from some important office and we have to let go of a case. The other day we caught a lawyer who went all the way to court, foisted some case on us and we had to make a hasty retreat. Lesson learnt? Never keep your hands on a lawyer, those guys who are supposed to sanctify the law end up eroding it to suit their own selfish needs.

Me: The problem is that people don’t respect the police. You seem to be such a nice person with intelligent thoughts, it is a pity when people look at you as if you are out there just to take bribes and take you for granted. The uniform that you are wearing should bring along with it, respect, not an element of cheapness. That is the major difference between how people in the West treat policemen and how we treat them.
Cop: You constantly talk of bribes. I won’t justify taking bribes, but consider this situation. You are a software engineer earning around Rs 20,000 per month. You are a graduate. That guy manning the traffic now is also a graduate. He gets in hand, around Rs 6000 per month. He painstakingly saves enough money over a very long period of time and one magic day, he sees a lakh rupees in his account. He is all set to buy that dream plot of land. But that same plot of land has been bought buy a software person for Rs 6 lakhs. And the policeman now realizes that saving from the salary that he gets will help him buy a land only in his next birth, because the land rates are driven up astronomically by people like you, please don’t mistake me, who are willing to pay any amount to have a house of your own. So the policeman resorts to accepting and demanding bribes. I know of people who dropped out of the ISRO. Why? Because they were being paid much higher in private firms. There are people who quit the army even. Because the corporate world pays them high salaries for taking up HR jobs in their firms.

The solution for this - the government should pay its people more. You people talk of some Sensex doing very well and that the mood in India is very jubilant, I do not understand all that jargon, but I can sense that there is a lot of money flowing in the country and that a lot of people are getting very very rich. It costs to keep an honest man honest. And if one is doing a government job, why should not he be paid much? I am also a well educated man. I can tell you confidently today that I can quit this job, and join a media firm any day and earn Rs 15,000 per month. I have that kind of confidence and talent in me. But at 45, when you have a wife and kids to take care of, you don’t give them a shock by taking such a drastic decision to change careers. So I am stuck to this job for life now.
(Though he did say that he was stuck to that job, he did not seem to regret it)

Me: So what do you think is the solution to all these traffic troubles? Sorry, but I have to come back to our original topic. It irks me everyday to see so many people breaking the rules. Is there anyway in which I or my friends can participate in manning traffic junctions?
Cop: I can understand your feelings. You educated people have to do something, I am a public servant. I can't talk or write against the government. You should reach to the media, come out with ideas to tackle problems at hand. Traffic sense should be thrust into the minds of people when they are young. Why do you think the great poet Mahakavi Bharathiyar sung "poi sollal aagaathu paapa" (Dear child, lying is wrong)? He did it because he knew that only young minds can be influenced so that they don’t do mistakes and that adults can't be cured of this evil.

And yes, we do have a Citizen for Safe Roads program where you can also be part of road traffic control. You have to register yourself and you will be given a traffic kit and also an id card. Anytime you are free, can flash your id card to the traffic policeman on duty and start helping him in regulating traffic. In fact you will also be given the telephone number of the traffic commissioner, anytime you stop an offender, if there is no policeman nearby, you can call up the commissioner and he will make sure there is a policeman near you in some time to penalize the offender. We will only be happy to have people like you in the junction!

And with that, our conversation ended. I left, dazed! Such profound thoughts at mid afternoon standing under the hot sun! I was reminiscing about every line he said for a long time after the conversation. I would agree to many points that he spoke about, but not to the complete helplessness of the traffic police in maintaining law and order. There still are things in their control and within their powers that they can do, but they don’t have the will to. At the same time, it did give me a thrust that I wanted. I want to change this situation, to do my bit to solving this problem, to try making citizens stop comparing America with India and making them realize, instead, that they are the reason why India is not America yet!
And writing this article is my first step in this direction!

Monday, October 08, 2007

The Dream school begins

The two hours that we spent at Anna Nagar discussing plans for executing a project, which sometime in the future will cone true, were most exhilarating. I could sense my heart pounding with the excitement, with the knowledge that some day, we could all build a school and since then, a series of schools, for the poor and prise them away - free of cost - from the evil clutches of illiteracy.

We were all sitting in different corners, one set in sultry Chennai, one in rainy Mumbai, one more in distant America, all of us with our ideas of a school of DreamIndia's own.

We have set the ball rolling, the initial challenges have been outlines, the warriors have been identified! It is going to be a long long journey, but the results are going to be wonderful for the poor children across the nation.

With a silent prayer on our lips, we go about our work... Amen!

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Fight for the Farmer

These are pictures from a candle light vigil organised by the group called Youth for Social Change. Highlighting the plight of the Indian farmer and the numerous suicide cases that are prevalent in areas like Vidharba, the group managed to mobilise public support and create awareness about the injustices meted out to the farmer.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Simply driving through Avinash!!!

Little Avinash is no more with us. The boy, who was injured in a hit and run accident in January, struggled for five long months, but finally succumbed on the 26th of June. Our prayers are with the family which has bravely put up a struggle for all this time and stood staunchly by him despite the various pressures amongst themselves.
DreamIndia tried its best to save the boy, but eventually, in vain. Considering the fact that the injuries were so bad there was no chance of a complete recovery and that the boy would have remained in a vegetative state for his life, at times we cant but help wonder if his death was not a good thing after all.

India's one billion strong population is said to be her strength. At times, I believe it is her weakness too. We are a nation that does not have civic sense at all. I am not going to write about all the spitting and the fighting on the roads, but only about the rash driving and the insanely apathetic traffic sense that we all seem to share, regardless of caste, creed, and even regardless of how much educated we are.

It is not nothing that instigated me to write this article...I am enraged, I am shocked, to hear about the death of Avinash Thapad. A victim of a hit and run accident, this 11 year old, who had been struggling for life following a skull fracture, passed away silently in the adivasi village of Khambhacha, on the night of the 26th June. Along with friends, I had been struggling for all these months to try and make him recover and so I feel the pain. Whose mistake was the accident, we will never know, as no one watched it happen. But clearly, considering the impact, the bike was moving at a very high speed. So Avinash's is one more in the long list of deaths due to negligent driving that India's financial capital seems to be hoarding, unashamedly so.

Why do all these accidents happen? Where does this rot stem from? It starts from the citizens, you and I. Every time we break the traffic signal causing that pedestrian utmost hardship in crossing the road even though it is his signal, every time we overtake on the left at high speeds, every time we cut lanes, every time we do something naughty on the roads knowing that no one is watching us, or that no one can question us, we are putting some innocent life in jeopardy. There was a Tamil movie called 'Anniyan', where the hero mows down anyone who does something that is completely wrong but that we all have come to accept without complain. For instance there was this contractor in charge of preparing food to train passengers, and who charges 50 paisa extra from every passenger. Every one pays up, but when Anniyan questions him, the contractor replies "What difference is 50 paisa going to make?" and subsequently fumbles when Anniyan tells him that charging 50 paisa extra is not a big mistake but doing that from a million people daily, is a very big crime indeed. Similarly, we all think that going through the red lights occasionally, is not a big mistake, but when we realize that like us, there are thousands across the nation doing the same thing, we will understand that the probabilities of an accident are that much more higher and we are also directly party to it.

Apart from the role of the citizens, the traffic police has to be pro active in policing such traffic crimes as those mentioned above. They should first be made to understand the importance of their roles in saving lives, and to appreciate the fact that there is no small offense and big offense. All offenses contribute equally to creating chaos. The minute they see someone crossing the stop line before the green light, they should pull up the motorist and fine him on the spot. Every jay walker should be brought to task. Every person who runs through a red light should be chased, caught, and jailed for a night at least. There is no shame in going to jail for a night - we deserve that for the offense that we commit.

But of course, these are all ideal solutions and there would have been a many articles published on the same lines. But these are solutions that our traffic police will never implement because we are spineless when it comes to taking a tough stance on motorists. Because all that the Indian psyche can do is keep giving excuses of excessive population and how the traffic department is overworked and understaffed and how we are constantly trying to upgrade technology to catch traffic offenders. Till the time a hard taskmaster is posted to the top role in the traffic department, such deaths as Avinash's will continue to be the norm and India will continue to remain a nation that simply does not care!

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Off to school!!!

Finally the deed was done on the 18th of June. We managed to admit about eight kids to the BMC school at Samta Nagar, Kandivali East. The parents of the kids, also curious to know how the school admits children without taking a birth certificate, tagged along. The Principal called the kids one by one and asked them about themselves, some of them were shy though one or two spoke to her like they had known her for years.

Then she instructed one of ther staff members to enroll the kids and spoke to us about the kids. She was requesting us to make sure that the kids dont lose interest in studies and that they dont drop out. She also said that the school will give the kids everything from books to uniforms to schoool bags, to even a meal at midday.

So DreamIndia will continue to conduct weekend classes through its volunteers, Marshniel, Gajanan, and new volunteer Swati. In case you or any of your friends are willing to join in and make a difference in these children's lives, please let us know. Mail us at or call me at 9967968679.

The difficult part has been achieved, but we have to keep going so that the children dont lose interest.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Games Children Play - Going towards School....

Today was a landmark day, what with no play sessions and only one long study session. Except for the incident with a grumpy watchman who told us to vacate our study place (outside a beauty parlor – the lady does not open shop till 10 in the morning), and who was shown the way pretty soon by all of us, the day was good for many reasons.

To begin with, I decided to teach the kids some English phrases and hence taught them “Good Morning”, “How are you?”, and “I am fine.” Soon the lady from the parlor came along and after I urged one of the kids, he boldly wished her “Good Morning,” much to her surprise!

The most stubborn of the lot, Gaja, who could not even hold a pencil (and I am not exaggerating here) when we first began classes, took to writing the alphabets religiously. He had problems with making even a small straight line with the pencil, but put in his all to make sure that the letters that he wrote were similar to those I had written in his book. There was another boy who had landed in Mumbai a couple of days back and who had already started work in a garage learning the ropes. As he had been to school, he helped some of the kids write down the letters.

In between we took mini breaks when the kids had loads of updates. Ankush enthusiastically told me about how the last night the winds were so strong that they blew away the cloth ceilings of their road side shacks and how no one was able to sleep because they all got drenched in the rain and the babies kept bawling throughout the night. He said it with such energy that for a moment, I could not help smiling, forgetting the misery that the people would have suffered, but later on, had a silent prayer on my lips hoping that this lot doesnt suffer much during the rains.

The Search for a school

My friend and I started on a mini tour of municipal schools in Kandivali East. We went to a Marathi medium school and were completely taken aback by the reception we got there. The teachers who spoke to us were so polite and more importantly were very interested in knowing that we planned to admit children of construction workers in their school. When we were telling them that these children were 7-8 years but had never attended school, we were sure that they were going to tell us that in that case, they could not do anything. But they did not so much as bat an eyelid.

Oh in that case, first make sure that these kids are not going to leave Mumbai during the rainy season and that they spend at least one whole academic year in school. We would need a birth certificate for the admission and if they don’t have that, we can make do with an affidavit. That will cost, but I don’t think that should be a problem.” Pat came the reply from a staff member! “The government has this scheme called the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and we can put these kids under that scheme.”

(I later researched more about the scheme and found out that it has made a big impact in bringing education to areas hitherto untouched by schools and also by upgrading infrastructural and educational standards in existing schools. There has been such extensive effort that has gone into this, you can read all about it in

Thus began the procedures. She wrote down the names of the children that we were interested in admitting to the school and told us that if we came the next day, she would explain in detail all the procedures in this process.

This, with stars in our eyes and beautiful visions of these kids who now, don’t even have a decent pair of clothing, walking around in fresh school uniforms with school bags slung over their backs like we all did while we were young, we trotted back home.

On the way, we met the children again, spoke to their mothers (as fathers were away for work), and told them about this idea. They were happy to hear this. There was one lady who came forward and asked us to “do something for my daughter also.”

I want to educate her, but that man does not want to. And we don’t know when we might go back to our village. We stay in Mumbai for only eight months a year.” When we told her that she should somehow educate her daughter, she said that even the previous night when she was talking about this to her husband, he got so angry he screamed and caught her throat. Grinding our teeth in anger, we told her that we will try our best and do something for her daughter.

So we wait for the morrow, when we will know how easy the task of admitting these kids, is! God willing, it should not be very difficult, and when it happens eventually, even if the children stick to the school atmosphere for half a year, it will help mould their personalities to a great extent.

Keep watching this space, this is hot news… and getting hotter by the day! We will party….the day these fellas are in school!

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Games Children Play - II

Day 2! "Uncle, where were you yesterday? We were waiting for you at the temple," said Ankush. I had to give a sheepish grin and come up with a silly excuse for not keeping my appointment the previous day. I swore to myself never to miss an appointment with these fellas, and even if I had to, I'll go and inform them of my inability to conduct that day's session.

It was night time and our usual place, the pavement, was unlit and dark. So we sat outside the temple itself. "The temple authorities will chase us away," the kids cried out, obviously used to being chased away by the many security guards -there are lots of them, temple watchmen, Society watchmen, Asha Nagar watchmen etc - "Let us see who chases us away," challenged I, quite blindly so.

And no! No one disturbed us. Thus we sat on the nice and shiny marble slab outside Sai Mandir, in full view of God, and started our session for the evening. And much to Gaja's surprise, I pulled out a pair of note books and pencils, and an eraser and a sharpener. "Today we begin with a 15 minute study session, after which we play." Gaja looked hither and thither, so wishing he could run away. And so they began their (probably)first ever tryst with the English alphabet! Gaja could not even hold a pencil in hand. While Ankush was more eager to learn, Gaja was quicker to grasp. His only problem was lack of confidence; he does not believe that he is meant to study or learn anything and hence avoids even looking at me when I ask him to recite something in English. But as and when we came to the point when I told him that only when he recited the A thru the E, will we restart play again, somehow he came up with the answers.

And so study we did, alternating with play and study sessions. At the end of the session we had Akash and Sharath also joining us, one who works in a Chinese hotel and the other who works in marriage parties. Their only reason for not going to school was lack of money at home. They happily agreed to attend the next day's morning session at the Mandir.

Luckily, while leaving, Akash's father met me and we discussed the possibilities of enrolling him in a school. The father had not put him in a school as he did not have a birth certificate. I was appalled at how trivial a reason that was, but within the week, I will take all efforts to enroll him in a municipal school nearby.

Already one friend of mine has agreed to join me during the weekends in these efforts. Will you too?

Monday, June 11, 2007

Games children play

Finally i managed to break the ice today! It is not easy, as i came to experience, to entice hardcore street kids to study. We have managed to make other children attend our weekly study classes, those who already attend school and have proper homes, no matter how small they are. But to tame the wild ones whose beds are the tarmacs, and whose pocket money is earned by gripping the legs of people who turn out at temples and who finally succumb to the innocent eyes pleading them for money and grub. These kids are characterised by their really dirty appearances - matted hair, a foul smell emanating from their thin bodies, and an I-don't-give-a-damn attitude. They leverage people's conscience and beg all the time for a living - for both themselves and their families.

There is one such group that we wanted to target, in front of the Sai Mandir at Kandivali East. After trying for a few days to catch their attention with the alphabets, I gave up. They were simply restless, no matter what pictures you showed them, no matter how interesting you made things for them, studies seemed to be a strict no-no. They simply could not concentrate for more than 10 minutes. These kids are born to make a living from a very early age and most of them have not even sniffed the scent of a classroom atmosphere. They resist all efforts to pull them into the mainstream 'study circle'.

So, following the advice of a friend, I went today armed with a memory game in hand. After convincing two kids that I was not about to ask them to monotonously recite the alphabets, I sat down with them and we all started to play. It was a simple game...a board which contained small boxes with pictures in them. All the boxes were covered with small coins. Every player had to pick two coins, one after the other, and if the pictures under both the coins matched, he could keep the coins, else he should place them back. At the end of the game, the one with the maximum number of coins, wins! So the challenge is to watch the co-players play and remember where each picture was, so that one could pick out its pair during one's own turn.

After ten mintues, two more boys joined in and very soon, the game became furiously addictive. Gaja was winning hands down and slowly, the tardy Ravi and Ankush started to wonder why they lost repeatedly, and by the end of the play session, though Gaja was still winning, the margins were a lot lesser.

In between play, I told them the English words for animals such as Cow and Goat, and also taught them to say "My name is", followed by their names. I could see that they lacked confidence. As and when I slowly opened them up and became more comfortable with them, the initial brashness was replaced by a shyness of not being able to talk, or even repeat what i said, in English. In fact the best player, Gaja, turned his face the other side, when i asked him to repeat the "My name is" sentence. Almost as if bride from the village coyly looks away when her hip husband asks her to try out the computer.

They dont have a sense of belonging, they feel as if English and in fact, even education, is for the rich masses. Given a chance and if made to understand that they also can study, they also can go to schools and have a classroom atmosphere and become 'big' like the people they beg in front of, 90% of the underprivileged children in India would do well. And who is to give them that chance? People like you and me... Think about it...

(I will keep posting updates on this frequently)

Friday, March 23, 2007

What is important in life!

Mr. Sekar works as a typist in Chennai. “If I am able to feed at least four people everyday and also attend to work and also run the family, it is solely because of my wife Savitri,” he says with a smile. “While in school I was friends with a lot of physically challenged children, and that made me make up my mind that I would marry someone who was also physically challenged in some way. Hence I did that. I didn’t even realize that 25 years have passed by. Now my daughter is married and my son is of marriageable age.”

“I am from a town called Jolarpettai and ours was a big family. Father used to be a train driver and he managed the entire family with his salary alone. A small accident lead to his untimely death and I don’t even have the energy to tell you of all the financial struggles that our family went through.”

“It is not only because that we struggled early on that I decided to feed the poor. Even when we were struggling for a decent day’s meal, my mom used to share what little we had with the kids from the neighboring houses. She has been a big influence on me being what I am today.”

“I joined this government job for a salary of Rs.600. More than the struggles I was going through the struggles of others affected me a lot. Finally it all boiled down to saving yourself from hunger. Alone, I cannot feed the entire world, so I decided to feed four people daily. I started off on my mother’s birthday when I visited a Home for the elderly and fed the nice people there. Since 1983 I have been doing this on al special occasions – Childrens’ birthday, Wedding anniversary, Parents’ anniversary – at least 50 different occasions every year.”

And then finally, he beams a smile and says “During marriages, people collect gifts, but I didn’t do any such things during my daughter’s wedding, as all the invitees were people from orphanages and Old Age Homes. Till my last breath I will keep doing this”

Translated from the following link

Thursday, February 01, 2007

School chale hum

This is what we at DreamIndia strive for. Primary education for all! Children deserve to be at school, in fact they have a right to it. And such videos beautifully capture the emotions on childrens' faces.

Please do not turn a blind eye to children who are not in school. You can make a difference, if only you wish to! We have done it before, just ask us how!