The gigantic ‘battle of cousins’ in the Indian epic Mahabharata, set in Kurukshtra in modern-day Haryana, entered a crucial phase on day 13. That was the day Arjuna and Subhadra’s warrior-son Abhimanyu heroically entered a circular military formation called the Chakravyuh, set up by the evil Kauravas, which was decimating the good Pandava army. Unfortunately, this brave young man had no idea how to get out of the maze, and was killed in action.
Thousands of years on, every roundabout in Delhi feels a bit like the Chakravyuh—but even harder to negotiate. Abhimanyu, after all, was easily able to enter the formation even if the exit route was unknown to him. With roundabouts in Delhi, it’s hard even to enter and pretty much impossible to exit. Unless, that is, you have a big bullying car and can brazen it out.
This is fundamentally because of the lack of four elements that make for safe roads: training, knowledge, application and enforcement. Unlike Abhimanyu, no one appears to know the rules here, or if they do, they are not trained for it. If they are trained, they don’t care to follow them. And if they don’t follow the rules, there’s no one around to pull them over. No one tells you to stick to your lane or indicate.
Around the world, including in some of the poorest and least developed cities, every roundabout follows one rule and one rule only: the vehicle to your right has right of way. No matter what. You break that rule at the risk of suffering damage to your car—but that’s the least of it.
In Delhi, vehicles enter and exit the roundabout as they please. This means that if you are already on the roundabout, you may be hit on the passenger side by a vehicle rushing into the roundabout without so much as a glance to their right. Equally, if you are that vehicle that is entering the roundabout without a care, you may be hit on the driver side by the vehicle already on the roundabout.
Which madman or woman would want to risk such a frightful outcome? Every driver on the capital’s roads, it seems. One reason is the complete absence of training. Even the best training schools in the capital do not tell you when to stop. There are no mock T-junctions (locally known as T-points) in the capital’s finest training school. The entire system is designed to make you pass the driving test easily, rather than test your knowledge and application of rules.
There are no oncoming vehicles or pedestrians to encounter in driving tests. You don’t stop for anyone or anything because the entire test is held in a mock driving park with delightfully empty roads. There is but a single roundabout and all you’re told to do is queue up with your car and ensure one thing—that you enter it from the left. There are no T-junctions in the park, and that means that most often on Delhi’s roads, you will find a vehicle entering a larger road (say a highway, yes, a highway) from a smaller road without a care for the speeding vehicles already on that larger road.
Unlike, say, a driving test in England, you are not tested in Delhi for your live skills on the road—neither for your skills, nor for your knowledge of rules. The result: millions of drivers, driving dangerously. In 2011-12 alone, 400,000 driving licences were issued in Delhi, 1.4 million in Uttar Pradesh, over 1 million each in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, 1.8 million in Maharashtra, and nearly 1.4 million in Gujarat, according to the ministry of road transport and highways.
There were 2.6 million cars on the roads of London in 2018. By comparison, there were 3.1 million registered cars on the streets of Delhi in 2017, a majority of whom—I can say from experience—are driven by lawbreakers. There’s only one rule everyone follows at all times: it’s the Rule of Convenience. Ever driven in Delhi after 10pm? Count the number of cars that actually stop at a red light over a 10-km drive and you are likely not to cross the single-digit mark by the time you reach your destination.
There were 7,375 road accidents in Delhi in 2016. T-junctions were the most dangerous spots, accounting for 1,008 of these accidents, followed by Y-junctions (837), arm junctions (742) and roundabouts (270), according to Delhi Transport Department figures quoted by The Hindu newspaper.
It is in the middle of this Chakravyuh that roads minister Nitin Gadkari—a man routinely tipped to be prime minister of India—has intervened with the most ambitious piece of legislation yet to reform and modernize the entire road transport and safety ecosystem in India. It is a challenging task, and one that cannot be achieved without a complete overhaul of enforcement. The Motor Vehicles (Amendment) Bill wants to take on that challenge, to reverse India’s status as the world’s single largest contributor to road deaths (146,133 in 2015, an increase of 4.6% from 2014).
Gadkari’s raft of proposals include steep increases in punishment for violators of traffic rules, penalties for builders of unsafe roads, an automated system of licencing to do away with human examiners (and presumably the chances of corruption), cashless treatment of accident victims and hikes in compensation.
Gadkari’s Bharatiya Janata Party excels at building roads. But what’s the point of building roads if they kill?
Gadkari must to do more—much more. The common worry after the bill was passed by Lok Sabha (it’s yet to be notified) is that hikes in fines will simply mean hikes in the bribes demanded by Delhi’s traffic police. This, apparently, is already happening, according to auto and cab drivers who say they are having to pay bribes of `500 for offences that attracted `200 bribes until recently. Drunk driving bribes are reportedly in their thousands.
Who will stop this mounting road corruption and how? Where are those speed cameras that really need to be ubiquitous to be effective? Why are driving tests held in sanitized parks more suited to children pedalling toy cars? Who will police the streets for traffic violations at night?
Others are more positive. An IT professional in south Delhi said: “Look at seat belts. People were so reluctant earlier and would pay fines and small bribes, and even pretend to wrap the belt around. But now everyone wears a seat belt."
This, of course, is a good example of a legislation leading to behaviour change. Now, much of India is hoping that, somehow, Gadkari’s new bill will do just that—many times over. But he needs to tell the nation how.
India’s 21st century Abhimanyu has his work cut out and we can only hope that he will emerge unscathed.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1