Whenever there is a Delhi-Bombay comparison the miserable state of Bombay’s roads always come up; and here I am stumped – I have to agree. Even today, my favourite joke about the roads in Bombay surrounds the fact that rather than the choice of whether or not to drive over a pothole, you find yourself choosing to drive over a pothole least likely to affect your car’s suspension! It’s a common pattern of Bombay’s administration – just before the rains, they’ll fill in all holes and spend money in a mad rush to make the roads ‘rain-worthy’!!! Of course, since this is a patch-up job, the rains have easy pickings of these patches; and what the rains leave behind, the heavy traffic and apathy of the administration wash away – just in time for the next year’s rains!
For the longest time, the best road to drive over was the Western Express Highway to the airport – I used to call it ‘lollipop’ road when I was a kid– there were regulation size circular advertisement boards with the ads painted over in the centre of the road….’lollipops’! Today the state of the roads in Bombay is much improved, but still not as good as some of the wider roads here in Delhi; this fact looses me quite a few arguments here in Delhi.
This is why I watched in glee as the colourful deadlines of the Commonwealth games came (and went) while the management of the Delhi’s streets went completely awry. You would be driving down one of the two ring roads and suddenly have to swerve to avoid a random pile of rubbish (usually construction refuse) dumped in the middle of the road for seemingly no justifiable reason. As the Commonwealth Games’ opening ceremony drew closer, the piles of rubbish grew in number, size and frequency – potholes upside down!
This continued, until after one particularly heavy shower, journalists hungry for any ‘breaking’ news stood gleefully (oftentimes knee-deep) in slush at what were meant to be ‘world class’ facilities and pointed out how ill-prepared we were for the games. Immediately the city swung into action expressing collective ‘horror’ at the state of affairs. It worked – the debris was cleared; from the main streets at least.
But as the slush was cleared and the city’s streets were gradually brought to (ahem!) international standards, we were witness to the appearance of seemingly random lines drawn, it seemed, for now particular purpose. I watched in fascination over the next few weeks as they started with an elaborate exercise of measuring the road widths after which engineers in yellow hard hats would stand around with a variety of spanking new instruments and debate – where would the line be drawn? This was followed by the subsequent chalking of the lines on the roads and then eventually the use of some seriously heavy-duty yellow paint. I promised you, it gleamed!!!!
Then inexplicably, at random intervals, patches of blue paint appeared within the lanes and eventually the mystery was unraveled – these were the lanes to be used exclusively for the CWG traffic – the logic? A dedicated lane ensures that the games schedules are not deterred by any traffic jams. All good in theory…I wanted to see how this would work in practice. The BRT corridor is an excellent example where traffic regulation was attempted, and then it seemed, the city’s management just sighed and let their lofty ambitions of traffic control go south!
India’s drivers have an amazing ability to ‘squeeze-drive’ – what, by international standards is a regulation 2 lane road suddenly becomes four lanes (or dare I say, more?) on India’s roads. Delhi is no exception to the rule, but the capital being what it is, goes one step further and has people driving against the flow of traffic simply because they couldn’t be bothered to drive on the right side of the road!
So in Delhi driving is an obstacle race – squeeze into traffic… honk, dodge oncoming traffic … honk, dodge people driving perpendicular to the rest of traffic … honk, dodge people, cows and dogs….honk – honk, honk, honk……honk! During the games, the administration capitalized on one thing that we Indians are all particular about – thrift; I’ve seen people who splurge at the most expensive designer boutiques argue till their voices are hoarse about Rs. 10 to be paid for parking! The administration declared a fine of Rs. 2000 to be imposed on anyone (yup anyone – no exceptions were made) driving in the CWG lane without a reason to be there. It worked like a charm. Except for a few slip-ups, the CWG lanes were empty.
The rest of the traffic lanes, however, were another story. Imagine Delhi traffic in regulation 2 or 3 lane traffic. Now squeeze that image to fit one or two lanes, then add the extra element of rush hour traffic – a newer definition of chaos! After the games, the newspapers were all praise for the ‘management’ of traffic. They printed picture-perfect photographs of traffic following perfect lane discipline … I think those cars must have posed. All the while the CWG cars and vehicles of officials sped down those lanes ignoring traffic signals and speed restrictions while the rest of us mortals sighed in envy.
Then, just one day after the games ended, while driving down Lodhi Road, I saw a most peculiar sight. Almost as if in revenge for having been forced into a semblance of traffic discipline for 14 days, I saw a line of vehicles drive in a perfect line and in unison down the CWG lane – the rest of the road was empty!