The Great Indian Roadshow

On a visit to Gurgaon recently, I was taken aback by the quality of roads in the relatively modern city. Pot-hole filled roads with little drainage greeted us as soon as we came off the highway. In just two years since I last visited the place, it seemed like this city was well along the the way of many of our older cities that are characterized by poor urban planning and management. The outcome of my visit was a missed meeting- the other party couldn’t make it due to a terrible 2-hour long traffic jam somewhere inside Gurgaon!
Nevertheless, this experience reminded me of a satirical piece I had written in The Sunday Observer in September 1997 (almost 17 years ago!). The piece is reproduced below.
Cartoon courtesy: Uttam Ghosh (I think).

God’s tears barely roll down that the bitumen melts, betraying the vulnerability of our national and state highways, or all roads for that matter. It cracks them and creates dents in their hearts, the recuperation from which is undertaken as an annual, seasonal task whose result is usually failure.

Looking at the flip side of all troughs, including the ones on the road, is a hobby, almost a passion with some people who have got nothing better to do. For instance, R.K.Laxman’s common man can see and experience here what Pathfinder sees on Mars- the craters.

If only all common men did not believe in the total indispensability of time, if they bothered to look around, they would realize that these potholes have more than ornamental value. They serve so many people and diverse interests. They have a right to adorn our roads. In the interests of society, it would be useful to educate the damned few who complain of this pitiable condition about leaving the roads as they are.
To start with, let us take an analytical look at the companies that make the things that the roads are meant for. “Ideal for Indian roads” is the USP of almost all of them, including the ones who have recently set up shop here from around the world. So guess what the young overpaid workaholics (YOWs) from the IITs and IIMs would have been doing in case our roads weren’t what they are: re-inventing the wheel, literally!

A camel ride on the beaches of Bombay is now the stuff dreams are made of, thanks to the sensitivity of some active human beings who fought for the rights of this beast of burden. But Bombay is a place where no one or nothing is missed for too long. A ride on the upper deck of the ‘best’ double deckers, after the first couple of showers, lets one relive the experience in near totality.

The body rocks in pure delight while the eyes are treated to the glorious sight of the sea below. The tiny puddles reunite to become part of one large family, the innocuous tides play around their recaptured domain, naughtily challenging irritated two-wheeler riders and succeeding in altering the pace of life around them.

The romanticism does not end there. The induced slowness offers a larger helping of the much craved for togetherness for young lovers in their own paradise- the upper deck. The potholes prevent any conflict of desires and ideas between them- the young man for whom a bit of physical intimacy is integral to his perception of romance, and the young woman who is averse to any public display of emotion.

As the bus meets and parts from pothole after pothole, the lady with feigned reluctance, reaches out her hand to the waiting arms of her boyfriend, a happy victim of circumstance. The emotions that inevitably follow this none too uncommon event are varied- almost palpable joy for the lovers, voyeurs reveling in vicarious delight, envy and contempt for the contemporaries and sixty-something couples respectively, and a bit of sadism for the bus conductor who finds only the seat adjacent to them to keep shouting “Ticket, ticket”, being the proverbial black ant (or ‘kebab mein haddi’) in their few moments of bliss.

The bliss of the beneficiaries of our roads does not end here. The afternoon tabloids report a minimum three-fold increase as their best sales outlets are the traffic jams, of which there is no dearth. Their form and content make them the most ideally suited for the situation and they thrive on the utility provided to their readers- keeping them abreast on the marriage front of some faraway royal family, checking out the forecast (sun signs, not the weather) for the remaining part of the day and half of the next, indulging in the crossword, staring at syndicated cartoon strips and finally, fanning themselves while they will their vehicles to budge forward, inch by inch.

In the course of all this, the tabloid’s sales force, usually consisting of children not more than 10 years old, earns a livelihood. So does the groundnut seller who moves from one vehicle to another, convincing the incumbents that eating those nuts is the best “time pass” on the road. After the tabloid, of course.

The traffic constable called upon to supervise the jam occupies centre stage and performs his physical excercises with an unqualified commitment that renders him fit, always. The municipality can increase its taxes to improve the roads. But an actual improvement can rule out a potential source of revenue for the next year. Who in their right senses would do such a thing? The employees in the municipality can continue to discuss for half a day the ordeal faced by them in reaching office and the likely trouble on their way back for the other half. An Indian road is an alibi upon which anybody can reliably fall back for every dishonoured appointment – ask Rebecca Mark of Enron, if you need any proof.

The only people who ought to and should be bothered with the state of our roads are the insurance companies. The volume of claims they would be receiving has to be astronomical, even going by the grossly underplayed government statistics. They would certainly be thinking of doing something about the it- not the roads, the criteria for settling road accident claims, I mean!

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