Archive for November, 2013


We don’t know whether the four youngsters who died last week when their car went into the Neera river, were momentarily misled by the NHAI signboard, or they were speeding and lost control as the cops reported, or whether some vehicle came at them from the wrong side and forced them off the road or… there could be a half a dozen reasons.

The damaged i20 . Pic by Sakal Times photojournalist Vaibhav Thombare

The damaged i20 . Pic by Sakal Times photojournalist Vaibhav Thombare

What we do know is what happened that night could have been avoided if all the organisations responsible – NHAI, Highway Traffic Police and contractor – had been doing their respective jobs. Had the police told the NHAI to remove the sign since there were no road repairs going on there, had the NHAI not put up that stupid sign in the first place, and had the contractor stationed his security guards at the spot (which I am told they should have), four lives could have been saved. Which brings me, specifically, to the Highway Traffic Police and traffic management on the highways.

What is the highway traffic police supposed to be doing on a daily basis? Are they just supposed to lurk on the highway and stop trucks to add to their daily collections and show up after an accident and conduct a panchanama. Is that their only job? Not if you read their pompous Mission Statement on their website.

This is what it says:

* Ensure Safe and Secure Travelling on Highways.

* Reduce and Prevent accidents, save lives

* Help the victims and injured persons

* Ensure smooth flow of Traffic by constant vigil and patrolling on Highways

* Constant education of motorists and road users by arranging workshops by each TAP

* Active and Helpful Highway Police.

How many of the points mentioned above do they actively practice? Not the first, definitely, unless levying a fine of a few hundred rupees is their justification for ensuring safe and secure travelling on the highway. Because the minute the offending driver pays up and leaves he usually chucks the receipt away and goes back to his errant ways. What are a few hundred bucks, anyway, today?

If they’re not ensuring the first, then they definitely cannot do the second and third. If they had been doing so, the four youngsters, and countless others would have been alive today. Look at the fifth point – constant education of motorists and road users? Forget workshops, how many times have you been pulled over by a highway traffic police cop and given a lecture on safe driving, especially at night or in the wee hours?  Maybe, they don’t have enough people to do that (as the accompanying chart shows), but again, that is no excuse.

accidents1

The truth is, while those who drive are mainly responsible for keeping the highways safe, there will always be those who pay scant regard to rules, and to the lives of fellow drivers. There is no effective law to stop such people, and even if there was, there is no one to implement it effectively. In the end it comes down to the people who should be doing their jobs, but aren’t.

I drive on the State and National Highways and when I spot police jeeps they are usually parked on the roadside, waiting for some truck driver who they can squeeze for a few hundred bucks – but beyond that, not much else. I had a friend in the Highway Traffic Police, who once told me that their main task was to collect a certain amount everyday from the truckers as fines to fill the department coffers!

Until recently, we would often drive to Satara on Sunday mornings, and drive back in the evenings. Along with us, every Tom, Dick, Harry and their dog would also be driving back from Kolhapur, Satara, Panchgani Mahabaleshwar or any other weekend getaway on that route, at speeds in excess of 100 kms per hour. And most of them would be uncomfortably close to each other. By the time I got back home I would be mentally and physically exhausted. I often wonder what would happen if any of the vehicles has a flat tyre or the driver loses control of his vehicle. It is a scary thought.

One day I told my wife that I would not drive anymore on the Mumbai-Bangalore Highway in the evenings, because I couldn’t take the stress. The drive from Pune to Bengaluru in the day is less harrowing than the one from Satara to Pune in the evenings, I said. And that happens because there is no one from the Highway Traffic Police to take errant drivers off the road. These maniacs are allowed to have a free run. The SUVs – and they’re getting bigger and bigger – bear down on you from the rear like some huge inter-galactic machine and start honking, swerving, just like in a scene from some Hollywood movie during a chase, looking for an escape route in their desperation to get ahead.  The even more scary sight, is the much smaller hatchbacks which try to emulate their big brothers. And there is no one to stop them.

Many years ago, a relative living in the USA, told me about how he had been stopped by the police on the freeway, when he was on his way back home from some work in another town. He was exhausted and just for just a second his eyes closed and the car drifted. Almost immediately, or so he thought, a police car, its siren wailing asked him to pull over.

The police officer politely told him he had fallen asleep on the wheel, had been speeding and told him to slow down. The relative told the officer “I am tired. I am going home to my wife and kids. So you want to penalise me, go ahead, but don’t give me a lecture.”

He realised the moment those words tumbled out that he had gone too far. Without another word, the police officer told the relative to follow his car, slowly. A mile or so ahead, the police car stopped at a drive-in. The officer told the relative to throw cold water on his face, order a large coffee – without milk – and wait for him till he returned.

“If I don’t see you here when I return, I’ll book you,” were the officer’s words as he left. He returned half an hour later and told him to drive home safely “otherwise your wife and kids might not see you alive again.” He said it was an experience, he would never forget. Of course, that was the USA. Does the traffic police in this country believe in such social niceties?

Advertisements

I was reading a Facebook status update about train passengers in Patna without confirmed reservations who barged into a reserved compartment and locked themselves in, thereby effectively denying legitimate ticket-holders entry into the bogey! There are only two States in the country where such a thing can happen – Bihar and Uttar Pradesh!

I remember writing a blog post after the Assembly elections when Lalu and Rabri were given marching orders by the electorate in 2010 and Nitish took over. I had also said in that blog post that it would take Nitish at least two decades to put the State back on the road to some semblance of prosperity.  After that, I had heard that Bihar had been changing for the better. For Nitish Kumar it must have been like climbing Mount Everest.

His biggest problem would have been to change the mindset of people who have lived in the belief that if they want something that is not theirs they don’t ask if they can have it, they just take it. In other words, the Goonda culture. That is Lalu’s legacy which has filtered down to the man on the street in Bihar. The kidnappings, murders, etc are all part of that legacy. And that is what I hoped, Nitish would change. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is happening, though I sincerely hope I am wrong.

So when I read the FB update I remembered an incident during a trip back from then Calcutta to Bombay sometime in the mid 1980s. When the train reached Kiul there were just four of us in that IIIrd sleeper compartment, which meant that at Patna, there were berths reserved for the rest who would be boarding. What happened next was a fascinating replay of what happens at most railway stations in the East and North on any given day. Those with reservations got in and got comfortable. Then a train conductor appeared outside and shouted to those clamouring for a seat or berth to form a queue. I marvelled at the order he had managed to put things in.

Then he stuck both hands out and as passengers trooped in, they put money in the TC’s palm! I watched mesmerised. It was like clockwork — opening his palms, closing his palms once the money was in, putting his hands in his coal pockets, and then pulling them out for the next round. He soon got tired and called for help to pocket all the money! There are, I think around 74 berths in a IIIrd sleeper, but there must have been at least double that number in the compartment before the train left Patna.

I took down his badge number and name and on my return to Pune, wrote a letter to the railway minister. About a year later I got a reply from the ministry, which stated that they had conducted an inquiry and found that there was no TC with that name or number on that route, and no such person at Patna Junction either! The letter helpfully added that since I was sure of the TC’s identity they would be having an identification parade at Danapur Junction on a given date, so I should be present.

I wrote back to the railway minister telling him that I wouldn’t be attending any ID parade, because after a year it would be impossible for me to identify a man I saw on a dimly lit Patna Station. I added that having been born and lived in Bihar I knew exactly what could happen to me, if I ever landed up there to identify a crook!

It is these incidents that have given Bihar a bad name. So let’s hope for Nitish’s sake, that whatever happened at Patna Junction recently was an isolated incident, and not a sign of things to come – or return, to what they were during Lalu’s time.