Traveling by road is to explore one’s country…bit by bit. It is difficult, dangerous, strenuous, time consuming, yet rewarding and well, an experience that is a part of many people’s bucket list. In the west, a driver’s licence is your ticket to freedom; to get out of your parent’s protective circle and step out into the world. There are rules to be followed and you are taught early in life that drinking and driving is stupid. Following traffic signs is like swimming; if you don’t do it then you die.
Not so in India. Drinking and driving is de rigueur. Why, the coffee cup holder in a car is used as a beer can holder! Car-o-bar is the bar on wheels during north-Indian baraats where people arrive at the wedding hooting away, drunk to boot.
So you begin wrong, by flouting the basic rule of not driving while drunk. And disregard every rule after that. No lane sense, hoot at will, be aggressive while overtaking, use high beams, don’t give way to ambulances, police cars or school buses, don’t halt for pedestrians crossing at zebra crossings, and show no respect for bicyclists — the list of offences is endless.
What of the roads? Lesser said the better. We need a Commonwealth Games in every Indian city for planners to pump money into infrastructure. Yes, the country is better connected today than it was 20 years ago, but then we should have been here 40 years ago. It was as late as in 1995 that India decided to modernise its road network. We have four kilometres of roads (both paved and unpaved) per 1,000 people, as compared to America which has 21 kilometres of roads per 1,000 people.
Driving in the US is a no-brainer. Due to its magnificent road network, people live farther away from the cities, inside well-developed suburbs, with larger houses which facilitate a better lifestyle and put less stress on the civic facilities in downtown areas. We have tried to replicate some of that in metros in India too, living in suburbs and working in inner cities. However, it is the commute which is horrific. The roads are incapable of handling the volume of traffic, the ancillary services like trauma care near highways, police patrols, pit stops etc are just not there.
While some of these services should be provided by the administration, others should have come up as a result of land being made available to private players. That has not happened. So all we have are dhabas and shady hotels that pass off as pit stops. While these appear quaint and charming to visitors, they can be quite hazardous for women traveling alone, or even when they are accompanied by men.
While traveling in Assam some years ago, I was advised not to get out of the cars for hours because it was ULFA territory and they were notorious for kidnappings. Soon it became dark and we were on the road again. Now it was not advisable to stop as there were BSF jawans around and well “anything could happen.” Again, driving around in Bihar, there are areas where one doesn’t get out of cars because they are Naxal areas where “anything could happen.” In Uttar Pradesh, one has traveled around areas where the highway becomes just a kuchcha road, and the car moves at a snail’s pace. These are backward, dacoit-infested areas where the administration doesn’t exist. The road is symbolic of life in the countryside: wild, underdeveloped and without hope.
An efficient road network is critical to a country’s development. India’s road network carries over 65 per cent of its freight and 85 per cent of passenger traffic. Yet a recent study found that the country loses Rs 60,000 crores a year due to congestion, including fuel wastage, slow speed of freight vehicles and waiting time at toll plazas.
But the situation is slowly changing in parts of India now. Driving from Delhi to Shimla is almost like driving on American highways. The roads are wide, the toll plazas are efficiently managed and the pit stops have clean toilets and hygienic food with security guards manning the outlets. Yes, the old world charm is gone but I’ll take modern and safe over rustic and hazardous any day!