We grow up to a certain myth in Bombay – traffic is the worst there is and the most unruly with absolutely no traffic sense. Oh, and add to the list of traffic woes is the noise pollution and the deplorable condition of roads in Bombay. Well if you still believe in this, I’d invite you for a visit to Delhi.
In certain places, Delhi has the widest roads and beautiful pavements. Well, if you’re from Bombay, pavements are a novelty. There are so many hawkers around that unless you’re walking on the roads very late at night, you don’t know what a pavement looks like. In most of the city, there are certain mounds of material (you’re afraid to ask what’s in it) followed by patches of what used to be roads. In Delhi, thanks to the number of ministers who like to make an impression with their entourage of vehicles, with screeching sirens and tyres, the roads are fairly smooth. Although considering the state of our country, one has to wonder what the hurry of the politicians is all about; it certainly does not seem to be the business of the country!
The traffic in Delhi does not seem to appreciate the fact that their roads are smooth and their pavements beautiful and wide. It all begins with the humble cycle ridden by people who seem to have a death-defying wish and they’ll ride their cycles unfazed, like they’ve got all day while the horns of the city blare threateningly about them. These are followed by the cycle rickshaws which are Delhi’s answer to Calcutta’s hand drawn rickshaws. As a friend once remarked, they should be invited to the Tour de France! Then come the auto rickshaws – little pieces of hell on wheels with a yellow-green canopy followed by the taxis. Unlike Bombay, the autos have the run of the city since cabs are much more expensive. The more lucrative trade is the private taxis whose driving would rival the autos any day. They’re used by the tourists and are often seen clutching the sides of the tourist cabs in a mixed expression of horror and fascination. Then there are the cabs used by the not-so-ordinary tourists – the ones that come out of hotels or embassies or businesses. And finally, the private cars and DTC buses.
The DTC bus is that particular transport organism that has a huge belly and is capable of housing the kitchen sink and chicken coops of its varied inmates. Its battered outer shell tells the story of many a scrape with death. And its drivers and conductors are the key to ensuring that no matter what – accident on the road with partly severed body, an almost empty tank of fuel or even two slashed tyres – the DTC bus will go on from start to end point and still make good time. You have to have guts and a personal bouncer to get into one of those buses. Needless to say, I possess neither!
The Private cars are another particular transport organism having a medium to large sized belly (depending on small-range to sedan sized cars) and capable of housing the particular designer-wear that is the latest ridiculously-priced fashion either in a bag or worn when the mem’saabs go shopping (with the latest jewellery, of course). The drivers are a breed unto themselves – they are frequently called upon to drive everyday of the week, often with four hours or less of sleep (this goes for tourist cab drivers as well) and a cell phone on one ear while driving. You have to have (or be married into) money or have friends in high places to get into one of those cars. Needless to say, I have neither!
The first time I visited Delhi in 1991 was on-route to Shimla. I did the usual tourist stuff in a tourist cab. We were near Rashtrapati Bhavan when the cab crossed the white line before the zebra crossing at a red signal. The resident cop fined the cabbie Rs. 100. The fine was accompanied by a receipt. I was most impressed. Of course the traffic in this city was more disciplined than in Bombay and of course Bombay’s pot-bellied policemen were spoiled…well weren’t they?
Fast forward to 2007. I’m sitting in a cycle rickshaw on my way to my day’s toil. And suddenly I am grateful that the dividers in the centre of the road are made of concrete and of some significant height. On either end of the road is traffic coming at me in the wrong direction. The signal is red, but the cycle rickshaw rider/driver negotiates his way through on coming traffic – 3 DTC buses (at speed), 12 cars (honking like my life depends on it) and countless other cycles and cycle rickshaws. We make it to the correct side of the correct road. This time the signal is green and its time for us to ring/honk/shout/screech at the illegal oncoming traffic from the other side. Bang in the middle sits a cow chewing cud like its a green field and the best weather to be sitting out in. Of course this means that that traffic would rather have a head-on-collision than singe a single hair of the sitting cow chewing cud!
Three almost-accidents later, I reach my destination. I get off; a friend wants to know why I have a mixture of horror and fascination on my face.