Bans Not OK Please

Maharashtra’s Ministry of Bans and Diktats (yes, it exists), has once again come up with a winner. The mandarins who run it have decided to come down heavily on one of the most pressing problems in the state — the ubiquitous ‘Horn OK Please’ signs on the backs of trucks and tempos, which, they say, create noise pollution. You see, that sign encourages drivers of cars, taxis, SUVs and motorcycles to honk liberally. Otherwise, these self-same drivers cruise along like model citizens, sticking to their lanes, showing courtesy to others (including passengers) and not tooting their horns unless absolutely necessary.

These signs on trucks might soon become extinct
These signs on trucks might soon become extinct

This latest fiat is typical of the attitude of the sarkar which does not, as it should, regulate and implement, but bans and orders. It is part of the thought process which, when it feels overwhelmed and cannot impose its own laws anymore, comes up with yet another set of rules and fiats. This does nothing to solve the fundamental problem but shows that Someone is Doing Something. As they say in the corridors of Mantralaya, when in doubt, ban.

Banning the Horn OK Please sign is wrong and silly on many counts. First, it will not by a long shot, solve the real problem of indiscriminate honking. No driver, looking at the sign at the truck ahead of him, decides to take it seriously and honk. The sign is not an injunction, it is painted there to warn drivers not to foolishly try and overtake a large vehicle without adequate notice, especially on the highways. In the old days, when highways were narrow and overtaking could be really dangerous, the sign was necessary; the tradition has endured, even if its practical value has diminished.

Second, the ban on the sign rather than a drive against the honkers once again shows that the babus inevitably go after the wrong target.

The khaps blame women for dressing wrongly and attracting eve teasers and molesters; the babus think it is the sign that provokes honking and want it gone. Different scenarios, same mindset.

Most of all, there is the aesthetic argument. The Horn OK Please sign is part of our visual culture. The kitschy and garish versions, with an occasional homily —“jiska koi nahi hota uska khuda hota hai” – and often some naïf art are part of our landscape, adding a dash of colour to otherwise grey and drab highways. They are the creative expression of anonymous painters in workshops and garages all over the country and of the truck owners and drivers who commission them. From figures of divinity to sundry film stars, truck art — along with the Horn OK Please sign — is a symbol of India. But it firmly belongs to the subaltern, not to the elite or the middle-class and thus there is no one to speak up for it.I suspect the plan to do away with the sign has a deeper reason. In the current scheme of things, where the attempt is to impose global standards and make us a “smart nation”, truck art does not fit in.

Today it is all about infrastructure, which only means great highways, tall buildings, technology and generally investment friendly policies and cities that are on par with the great financial capitals of the world. No other city, whether New York or London or Dubai or Shanghai has trucks with lurid art work on them— how can India?

In time, the government may also ban painting on trucks, demanding that they all be of uniform colour. Whimsicality will be outlawed.From now on, any truck with the Horn OK Please sign will be fined 100 rupees. But the Ministry of B & D has not clarified whether outstation trucks will be stopped from entering Maharashtra. Will they have to compulsorily paint over the sign at the border? Will there be a roster of sayings that will be permitted? As a wit asked on Twitter, will the famous line, “Buri Nazar wale tera mooh kala” be now banned because it promotes racism? We don’t know.

It would help though if the government undertakes a study that monitors horn use and tells us, a year from today, if honking in Maharashtra and especially in the cities, has dropped significantly because of this new policy. If it has declined, the move would have paid off. I am willing to bet, however, that removing the Horn OK Please will not make the slightest difference to our honkers.

Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist and the author of Amar Akbar Anthony — Masala, Madness, Manmohan Desai

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