Our government is obsessed with the daily threats to our lives posed by terrorists hiding in our midst. Consider the extent to which we are frisked, monitored by hidden cameras, and protected by a range of law enforcement agencies. It appears that these actions have achieved good results: At a per capita level, India has one of the lowest death rates due to terrorism in the world. To be precise, about 70 persons are reported to have died due to terrorist incidents in 2015, accounting for less than one per cent of the global toll of these deaths. I now hope our law enforcement agencies can turn their attention to a form of terror as random as a bomb in a train and even more mindless (terrorism, as perverse it may be, at least has some ideology backing it). And unimaginably more common. In 2014 alone, it killed more than 1.4 lakh Indians (according to 2015 data released by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, 400 people die daily in road mishaps), ten times the entire global toll of the number killed by terrorism. Everyone is at risk, but it is our youth who are most vulnerable. It is happening all around us, in full public view, and is on the rise.
Of course, I refer to the terror on our roads.
If there is one place where our country is in the throes of anarchy, defined by a total disregard for the law coupled with the utter capitulation of the law enforcement agencies, it is on our roads. I am amazed that I am often the only driver obeying a red light, especially when the traffic is thin, as if the lights cease to have meaning in these circumstances. I am astonished that the traffic lights simply stop operating when they are needed the most, that is late at night when half the drivers are either drunk or falling asleep. I am aghast to see truck drivers nonchalantly cruising the wrong way on a national highway. I am shocked to see a family of five on a scooter, including a babe in arms, and the father driving the scooter with just one hand, for the other is gainfully occupied holding his mobile phone to his ear. I am enraged to see drivers cut into lanes forcing cars in that lane to slam their brakes. The infamous Mercedes hit-and-run in New Delhi and the horrific bus crash on the Mumbai-Pune expressway in recent weeks are just two more numbing statistics in this national shame.
Let us be honest: India is the most harrowing place in the world to be a pedestrian, driver or passenger. But what utterly depresses me is the abject abdication of the police to this carnage: Most often there is no police to be seen, and when they are, they are often otherwise occupied chatting with one another, tracking those who eat beef, reading a newspaper or they simply don’t give a damn.
Indeed, it is amusing, in tragi-comic way, to see how our police respond to this torrent of crime happening right in front of them. One common approach involves rhyming slogans which are intended to be both humorous as well as carry the serious message of road safety. My personal favourite is one that I saw on a road near Manali which, apparently speaking on behalf of a passionate lover, exclaimed “Darling I Love You, but Not So Fast”. In response, around one of those spectacular bends in the mountain highway was the riposte “Feel the Curves, Do Not Test Them!” I could imagine the employee in the Border Roads Organisation (whose name was proudly emblazoned on these signs) feeling chuffed for coming up with slogans which could simultaneously revive sleepy drivers with laughter, while carrying a profound message; never mind that these were in a language that most drivers could probably not read. I also recall seeing at last half a dozen accidents on that trip, one of which involved yet another bus crashed into a ravine hundreds of metres below the road. From the condition of the bus, it was clear that no one could have survived that calamity. Perhaps the driver didn’t have a lover to go home to.
On a recent trip to Uganda, I was impressed by the way my driver was pulled up by a policeman for trying to overtake a long line of cars waiting patiently, without a single honk, to get past a police check-point to enter the airport. The policeman was uncompromising: He wanted to know why my driver had broken the line. He made my car wait till a dozen cars had passed before letting us back in the queue, warning the driver not to repeat this relatively minor infringement again. I could see my driver was scared and that he would not be cutting lanes for a long time. And then I landed in Mumbai — the utter chaos on the roads reminding me that I was home. Coincidentally, the morning newspaper that very day carried a story about the rise in traffic deaths in the city and the police commissioner’s response was that people need “more education to drive with care”. Most people who cut red lights or drive drunk already know that this is dangerous. The Ugandan cop knows how to combat this terror: By more effective law enforcement.
Some think that Indians are genetically bad drivers. However, the same Indian who drove in New Delhi as if his wife was delivering their first child in the back seat of the car, will land in London and drive like a saint. He does so because he knows the cop in London will stop him, confiscate his license, impose a hefty fine and threaten him with worse if he attempts to bribe him. It is, quite simply, fear of the law which makes him drive sensibly in London. Conversely, it the lack of fear of the law or their enforcers which makes India amongst the deadliest places in the world on the roads. That our police are able to enforce such fear when they have the political muscle to back them is plainly evident from the relative success of the odd-even scheme in New Delhi: Laughably, though, while the cars with the wrong number plates were being challaned, countless others were breaking red lights and cutting lanes right in front of the police. After all, they had the right number plates.
We seem to be winning one war on terror and, in contrast to some developed countries, we have done so with remarkable restraint (that is not bombing civilians in other countries) for which I am proud. I now pray that we can apply these lessons to win the unimaginably more deadly war on terror on our roads. I long for the day I can walk on a footpath, traverse a pedestrian crossing, ride a bicycle or drive my car, without having felt that I have just escaped multiple near-death experiences.