OUR ONE-WAY ROAD TO HELL

I recently had a chance to spend a couple of days in Delhi on a business trip. Residents of Mumbai and Delhi have a love-hate relationship – they love to hate each other! Residents of Mumbai always rave about their city and vice-versa for residents of Delhi. I was a temporary resident of that city about a decade and half ago, and have relatively fond memories of the place, but this recent visit was an extremely harrowing experience.

I still recollect clearly that when I was in Delhi about ten years back, the city was being developed into a proposed “mega-city” with lots of flyovers, road expansions and other such projects underway. People were excited about the upcoming metro – every resident was proud of the city and expected the city to be a shining example for other Indian cities to follow. Even Gurgaon, which was then just another wannabe town trying to stand up to its mighty neighbour, had its own charm. I purchased my first cell phone while I was in Delhi and discovered the true meaning of authentic and sumptuous street food during my stint there. I felt lonely and hated to stay alone out there, but some good friends and the thrill of staying in the capital of the country more than made up for it. After this recent trip, I am happy to note that Delhi is one of the best connected cities of India, thanks to the aforementioned flyovers and expanded roads. The metro has turned out to be a boon for the daily traveler in Delhi. Gurgaon has burgeoned into a shopper’s paradise with the place boasting of more malls than all of India put together, and with the metro being expanded to connect it to Delhi, it is only going to blossom further. The food is still lip-smackingly good, the roads relatively much cleaner and less cluttered than that of Mumbai. Unfortunately, many of the problems that Delhi currently faces, makes all of the above nugatory. My European colleague and me were put up in a decent hotel in Gurgaon, since our client meetings were spread between Delhi and Gurgaon. Another Delhi-based colleague was kind enough to drive us around for these meetings. But it is with a heavy heart that I say that driving in Delhi is nothing short of a nightmare. Every place we had to go for our scheduled meetings was a minimum of an hour and half away – and this includes traversing from one end to the other of say a Saket! Even the simple task of getting out of the hotel drive-way and onto the road used to take us nothing less than fifteen minutes. Traffic rules are broken more often than they are observed, and road rage seems to have become the trending fashion in Delhi (and Gurgaon). Normal people wear their hearts on their sleeve, but in Delhi I observed that residents wear aggression on their sleeves. Driving up the wrong way in a one-way street seems to have become the norm and woe betide anyone who questions the wrongdoer. My colleague from Delhi narrated an incident where the Indian version of “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral” had been reenacted for the benefit of an unsuspecting driver who had dared to question one such offender. Such occurrences seem to have now become common-place for the “aam aadmi” of Delhi and Gurgaon. All through my two days in Delhi I was more stressed just being watchful of some reckless car or rickshaw driver wanting to get into a verbal wrestling match with us, for something as silly as us following traffic rules. Compared to Delhi, I felt the Mumbai vehicle drivers are angels! Traffic in Delhi is not restricted to peak hours – all hours are now peak hours. Even as late as ten in the night there was heavy traffic serenading us all the way from the airport to our hotel in Gurgaon.

But through all this bedlam of honking cars and aggravated drivers, my colleague from Delhi adopted a Zen-like calmness. When questioned as to how he maintains this composed demeanor through all of this pandemonium, he smiled a Zen-like smile and said that, “Delhi traffic is an excellent teacher”. Another noticeable fact in Delhi is the near non-existence of the traffic policemen, who are conspicuous by their absence. Not that their presence would have been of great help – as I mentioned earlier, the vehicle drivers of Delhi and Gurgaon are a law unto themselves. This visit made it clear as to why the incumbent local government wants to implement the hastily thought-out even and odd number rule for vehicles in Delhi. Pollution is the other major bane of Delhi but that is a tale for another day.

Please do not take this as calumniation against Delhi – the situation is not much different in most Indian cities. We in Mumbai are just a shade better (and a miniscule shade at that) than our counterparts in Delhi, and this is nothing to be proud of. While respective governments try out various schemes to improve our cities, I feel that if all vehicle drivers follow basic traffic rules and maintain civility on our roads, then most of these issues can be resolved. Why this unseemly haste to travel down the one-way road to hell by jumping signals and endangering not just ourselves but others too? Time to clear the cobwebs of the mind…

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