– Charumati Haran
Years ago when I was learning to drive, my driver told me, “If you can drive in Delhi, you can drive anywhere”. According to the Delhi Traffic Police website, Driving in Delhi has the following stats:
- Population – 1,70,84,235
- Vehicles – 96,34,976
- Road length – 33,198 km
- Area- 1,483 sq.km
I’m sure all these numbers have increased since they were last calculated. To take the anecdotal evidence into account, anyone who drives in Delhi will quickly agree that behind the framework of laws and rules, there is a whole other shadow system of crazy conventions that are followed. Sometimes, these are practical, like my driver telling me that I should run a red light, rather than risk an accident. Sometimes, they’re based on following the status quo. Long-time drivers in Delhi know exactly where they can park or U-turn safely, without getting in people’s (or the police’s) way. Sometimes they’re based on habit and familiarity. We’d be more relaxed driving around our homes and work places than in other parts of the city. There’s a good deal of negligence that are inherent to the system too, from the challan system to the ease of getting licenses to drive.
Put the numbers with the anecdotes. What surprises me is how the road system manages to work at all!
Delhi is infamous for rampant rule-breaking. Many of us probably learned to negotiate by watching our parents deal with traffic inspectors. But along with asking how we can fix the system, we also need to ask why this system persists, what incentives and structures drive it and what makes it work as well as it does. As an economics student, I’m really wondering if there is method to the madness of Delhi Roads.
Lots of social behaviours could explain Delhi roads. For example, there’s the famous game of ‘chicken’ – a game in which the first person to back down ‘loses’, but if both persist, both are harmed – which is probably seen pretty often. Does the mutually assured destruction of an accident create a deterrence that keeps Delhi drivers in line? Is there a rule of the mightiest that makes everyone else give room to the buses and trucks and heavier vehicles?
Or perhaps we’re all more understanding on the roads. There is often a moment, almost movie-like, when you look at a driver and an understanding passes between you – you know exactly what’s going to happen and who’s going to give way to whom. The experienced drivers roll their eyes and give way to the inexperienced. In a traffic snarl, drivers step out of the car to tell other drivers precisely what to do to keep traffic moving (hello, citizen traffic police?). Pedestrians quickly pick up on which roads they can ignore cars on and which ones they should check ten times before crossing, and frequent bus passengers can predict their erratic bus journeys down to the minute. Drivers find ingenious ways to keep calm and pass the time in traffic jams, reading the newspaper, calling radio stations, eating, trading gossip with fellow drivers and even brushing their teeth.
So here are the questions for debate: Why doesn’t the road descent into complete anarchy? Or have Delhiites become so familiar with the chaos that it seems normal compared to other parts of the world?
Author disclaimer: This article was intended as partly thoughtful and partly satirical. Being surprised that the system works even this well is not my endorsement of reckless driving. Follow the rules as much as possible, respect people’s rights and lives, and do not ‘experiment’ or try to ‘game’ driving in Delhi. The stakes are too high. Delhi has the best roads in the country but still tops the list of fatalities with more than 1500 deaths in 2015.
Charumati – A Potterhead, Trekkie, Hitchhiker, Whovian, Sherlockian and much else, this young lady has trouble describing herself concisely and would rather that people poke and prod her to discover for themselves; She adores long walks and longer conversations. Officially, she’s worked with many prestigious organisations as a researcher, outreach associate, project manager and consultant. Though a dreamer, dabbler and perfectionist who stretches herself too thin, she’s stubbornly determined to live her life to the fullest.