Monday, March 10, 2008

What's up, Bangalore?

Rage on the Road
It seems like the city is going through some rough times. While the brouhaha over the opening of the new international airport continues, I was saddened to see this story in the paper earlier today.

A man suffering from a cardiac condition died for no fault of his, except that his son - an autorickshaw driver - jumped a red light while trying to get his father to a hospital. And perhaps the fact that it was March, the month when policemen - especially traffic constables - have to clock up their annual quota of fines. This leads them to suddenly get all strict with drivers and riders alike, especially autorickshaw drivers.

True, autorickshaw drivers are notorious for the zig-zagging they carry out on our overcrowded roads. And I agree that the cop in question was doing his duty: the whole I-have-to-get-to-a-hospital-at-once story is often abused, but there are other things to bear in mind. For one, the city - like most of India - does not have a quick and reliable ambulance service. In an emergency, you simply cannot be sure if you will get the medical care you need. Besides, an ambulance trip - if the vehicle is not from one of the public hospitals - costs a small fortune that must have been beyond the means of the family in question.

So when the autorickshaw driver saw that his father needed urgent medical help, it made sense to use the vehicle he had to ensure he got to a hospital in time. Yes, his jumping a red light could have caused an accident, hurt others. Fortunately, in this case, it did not. Besides - and I know this is a terrible excuse, but it's true, so I'll say it - at any time during the morning and evening rush hours, you can find at least a dozen major intersections in the city where vehicles move without the aid of working traffic lights or a traffic policeman.

Besides, as one witness pointed out, common sense did not prevail. It was probably an ego thing. While autorickshaw drivers are no saints, the police are infamous for unduly harassing motorists, especially in March. The crowd that collected chased and beat up the policeman - again, a sad reflection of the state of the city - but sometimes, it's the only way the common man in this country gets to make a point. Uncivilized, yes, but inevitable.

Garbage, garbage, garbage
I was thinking about what the family must be going through when a normally not-crowded road seemed to be in the throes of a jam. A large garbage truck had parked itself on the wrong side of the road and not too near the pavement either. This took up half the space, bringing traffic to a virtual standstill - at 9 in the morning!

I must have been unusually observant this morning because 10 minutes later, I saw another garbage truck doing the same thing on a bigger road and at a blind curve! A little Maruti 800 just about missed driving headlong into the rickety monster and I wondered how long the drivers would fight and hold up traffic.

Safety First? What's that?
Just a couple of minutes later, I saw two little girls in school uniform sitting on a scooter behind a man I thought must be their dad. They were singing something, looking bright and happy on a Monday morning. I noticed that the man wore a helmet. The girls did not. Common enough, but still scary. A second later, I saw that he was holding a mobile phone in one hand, busy texting someone. His eyes were on the phone, NOT on the road!! He was controlling the scooter with one hand!! ONE HAND! Obviously, it was wobbling along. On a BUSY road. In the morning rush hour. I was sorely tempted to give the man a piece of my mind.

Yes, we are a poor country where two-wheelers are a cheap way to get around town, especially since Bangalore does not have an efficient public transport system. I hate the fellows who weave in and out of traffic on their 110cc bikes showing off their contempt for safety. Their high on testosterone and God knows what else. They're idiots too. But what do you do when a 40-something adult taking two little girls to school behaves so irresponsibly.

I'd have liked to see the traffic policeman at the junction reprimand this man. But no, the cop at the intersection that just came up was too busy on his walkie-talkie to take note of the moron on the scooter. Which is why I have a hard time swallowing the-cop-was-only-doing-his-duty reason given by the police department in the first story I mentioned.

For the record, you are not allowed to talk on a cellphone while riding or driving in Bangalore. I follow that rule. But I know that most two-wheeler riders stick their phone inside their helmets and take calls anyway. Drivers of cars use Bluetooth sets but frankly, can you hold a proper conversation while navigating the mindless rush of vehicles that is essentially traffic in Bangalore? I doubt it.

Don't get me wrong. I love this city. I chose it as home and I wouldn't leave it for all the riches in the world. And that's what makes me so mad. I want my city to improve. We can't call ourselves a global hub and still act like we live in a small town with just one main road. We need to grow up, fast. Politicians may not do much, but how many of us can say that we try to do our bit whenever we can for this city?

Seriously, what's up, Bangalore?

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