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!