With New Fines that Cost as Much as a Smartphone, Can We Please Fix the Roads?

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With New Fines that Cost as Much as a Smartphone, Can We Please Fix the Roads?

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I

n the last few weeks, the government has answered the age-old question, “Baap ka rasta hai kya?” with a simple, and effective, “Haan”. The changes to the Motor Vehicles Act have officially kicked in, and Uber drivers are finally beginning to understand that there are actual consequences to forcing pedestrians into gutters before turning the Badshah up and driving away like they’re Niki Lauda reincarnate.

Social media commenters are reacting to the new rules in the same way they react to Kashmir conflicts, new Chetan Bhagat books, and crippling depression — with a stream of unending memes. I’ll save you a few hours of scrolling, the general joke is that you take your car/bike out for a spin and end up going home butt naked because the traffic police took all your money and, presumably everything you own.

The memes, while exaggerated, aren’t entirely wrong — if you’re the kind of person who thinks traffic rules are only for “halka bandas” who can’t make it through a simple Splitsvilla elimination chamber, you’re going to be in some serious debt the next time you’re stopped by the traffic police. No longer are you going to get away with a wink and ₹50 note for skipping a red light and reaching the traffic jam ahead a little faster than the guy behind you. It’s the revenge of the traffic cop, and this time he means business.

A rickshaw wallah was asked to pay ₹35,000, a tractor driver in Gurugram was fined ₹59,000, a scooter rider in Delhi had to shell out ₹8,000 more than the cost of his entire scooter. Looks like there’s never been a worse time to be a drag racer on the streets of India, Ramesh. Cameras are installed at most major crossroads, violations are directly recorded and sent to our phones, and fines could occasionally cost more than an iPhone. Small price to pay for open roads and peaceful journeys to work.

Looks like there’s never been a worse time to be a drag racer on the streets of India, Ramesh.

Which brings us to the unfortunate point. While the revisions to the Act are commendable, and guaranteed to put a number of Innova drivers in their place, there is one minor concern. The new rules keep making a mention of these things called “roads” and I’m not entirely sure I follow what that means. They wouldn’t happen to be referring to the small strips of land in between the dhobi guy on the left and the vada pav guy on the right, I hope. Because that small strip of land is literally the modern portal to hell.

Seriously our roads, especially in the highest income cities, look a lot like the face of the model before she tries the magic cream in those anti-pimple ads. Videos are widely circulated of rickshaws and bikes toppling over in these holes. In Mumbai, the sea becomes a part of the road once a year, and, just a week ago, a man from Bangalore managed to stage a moon landing on the city’s roads that could spark conspiracy theories in the US for another 50 years.

Then there’s the minor factor that the test to get any kind of driver’s licence in the country involves sitting in a 15-year-old Santro while the RTO guy takes you three feet in one direction and then three feet in reverse. Now that would be an ideal test of skills if we all lived on an airport runway and had to travel 25 metres to work and reverse back into our homes. Instead we have one-way roads that look like an extension of the drainage system, giant trash piles to manoeuver, and those “regretting full inconvenience caused to you” signs they put up all over the place.

Sure speeding is a serious offence (which only trained professionals should dare attempt in a city like Mumbai anyway) but how does it help when a sign announces the speed limit is 80 km/hr and then changes its mind 10-feet away and announces that the revised speed limit is 30 km/hr. That’s a level of last-minute decision taking you’d see in a movie starring Nicholas Cage and Jason Statham. To accept the average Indian driver to pull off this level of expertise would require a workshop or two, at least.

The streetlights are, meanwhile, constantly trying to induce seizures. As soon as one stops blinking, another begins. Then, six months later, once all the lights are fixed, the giant neon hoardings that have been carefully designed to get all your attention at once are illuminated more clearly. While I can appreciate the urgency with which they want us to watch the new Naagin show, or wish a small-time politician the happiest of birthdays, it’s really hard to not be distracted by a pulsating giant sign and drive into an open manhole in the middle of the “express highway”.

Now in between avoiding getting run over by a truck, hitting a vegetable wallah who’s carrying 60 kilos on his back, minding the pedestrian with noise-cancelling headphones, carefully looking out for the biker buzzing around you like a fly, and mindlessly glaring the stationery car that just decided life was too short and parked in the middle of the road for the night, we also have to make sure we don’t accidentally violate any rules on the way. That’s a lot to expect from a person who got their licence from a man named Raju standing near the RTO.

So while it is indeed time for citizens own up to their poor driving skills, and start paying hefty fines for their violations, it would be equally nice if the government were to start taking complaints about roads and infrastructure equally seriously. They don’t even have to do anything revolutionary — no one’s asking for an Autobahn, just enough to ensure that it’s possible to follow the rules.

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