On The Street Where You Live

It was with some interest that I noted the latest story coming out of Mizoram, where the state transport authority recently enacted a mandatory provision that all new car owners in Aizawl must provide proof that they have a garage space.

I suppose it won’t be long before something as equally idiotic is proposed here in Meghalaya. The topic of traffic congestion in Shillong – and India as a whole – is certainly one that comes up with a tedious consistency, and can be guaranteed to take up a decent part of any conversation with visitors to the house. An interesting aspect of these tired rants – usually from family members who have been caught in the peak-hour afternoon traffic – is how much indignation is reserved for those who are buying vehicles for the first time.

The phrase ‘there are too many cars’ is invoked frequently, and the car manufacturers and buyers appear to be the main culprits responsible for the mess. The fact that our roads are not well managed, our basic infrastructure hasn’t been updated in years and that urban planning in the city appears to be non-existent doesn’t get a mention. In the drawing rooms of Shillong’s middle classes, it all seems to be the fault of those uppity underprivileged who can now afford their brand new Tata Nanos. The poor are said to be acting in collusion with the banks – who are now scandalously giving away money too easily – along with the car manufacturers, who both seem to have forgotten that car ownership is a status symbol of the wealthy and was never intended to be for the Aam Aadmi.

Mild exaggerations aside, it is all very well to say that Shillong was never designed to have so many vehicles on the road – it’s quite true – but this ignores the fact that Shillong was never actually designed for anything. Like many cities around the world, Sydney being an obvious example, Shillong has grown organically, from the inside out, without much assistance from urban planners at all. And with the population in the city exploding in the last decade, it seems that the neglect of our infrastructure is only being recognised by the electorate now because it is directly effecting the amount of time it takes for them to get to work in the morning.

The state government should be the culprit that people are complaining about. It has been carrying on like a village couple who keeps having child after child without a thought as to how they will be able to feed or clothe them – never mind looking ahead to see how many rooms they might need to add to their house in the near future. It’s an obvious simile but one that puts things into perspective: by reprimanding those who can now afford a car, the government in Mizoram is behaving like our village couple punishing their children for being born.

It’s also very bad for business. Tata listened to the market and developed a small vehicle fit for use on inner city roads at an extremely low cost; they should not be penalised for this. Indian designed and constructed vehicles are good for the economy. The only winners in this sort of government intervention would be wealthy inner-city landowners. Can you imagine the four and five storey cement parking stations that would spring up overnight if this sort of ordinance was introduced in Shillong?

There are plenty of ways to reduce the congestion of traffic in the city, and it’s a shame none of the recent overseas study trips by our politicians and bureaucrats have been to cities that have successfully dealt with similar issues.

Speaking of which, some readers may have seen recent photographs of the new ‘3D fast bus’ that will be trialled in Beijing’s Mentougou District soon. The bus looks like a light-rail train and resembles the monorail that was proposed for Shillong some time back. The difference is that the 3D fast bus bestrides the road and does not need a rail. It has two levels: on the top level up to 1400 passengers can be accommodated, while the bottom level allows vehicles below two metres to pass right underneath it. Traffic jams in China’s capital are projected to decrease by 20 to 30 percent as a result and the bus will be powered by solar energy.

The idea that something similar might appear in Shillong anytime soon is ludicrous, I know. A government that is incapable of installing and maintaining a basic traffic light system cannot be expected to pull off a monorail, underground or 3D fast bus. Such a government is incapable of anything except for the most reductive policy – like banning people without garages from buying cars.

But if the Meghalaya government did try to introduce anything like this here – as I’ve heard several acquaintances suggest recently – they would lose any shred of credibility they had left. I couldn’t believe the admission by the government earlier in the year that the project to install the traffic lights had been labelled a failure and given up. What was even more baffling was the silence that followed from the voting public. Are we really going to accept that the traffic lights dotted all over the city are now to be used solely for the purpose of wiping lime? It is not a flippant question. Those lime-striped traffic lights are the totem poles of a corrupt system. They prove that the population of Meghalaya is willing to accept the entrenched embezzling of the state coffers, and that no one expects the rule of law to be enforced.

The comparison with China is one that is made daily when it comes to infrastructure, the latest example being how they pulled off the Olympics while we in India are struggling to organise the Commonwealth Games. It is true than in most big things – like in manufacturing, the construction of roads, power projects and ensuring water supply – China is leading India, but those who look ruefully over the Himalayas and wish we were a one party system too are foolish.

They undervalue our best asset – democracy. China might be twenty years ahead in terms of development projects, but they are sixty years behind when it comes to the rough and tumble of having a liberal democratic system of government. Articles like this opinion piece aren’t tolerated in China. If you don’t like the way that the Party runs the system, then tough; it’s all you’ve got. And it’s too bad if it is corrupt, deliberately tries to weaken your ethnic group or doesn’t care about your civil rights.

But we in India have freedom of the press, the right to information and the ability to vote out our government if it is not up to the job. They are our elected representatives. Yes, things do get done more quickly during Governor’s Rule – but be careful what you wish for. The streamlining of services works both ways. As quickly as a dictator can build you a 3D fast bus, he can send you and your family to a prison camp in one – all because he doesn’t like the look of you.

If we want to clean up our roads we need to start thinking about how we can clean up our politics. Shillong is not the first capital city to have a problem with traffic, power shortages, waste disposal or corruption; these are not tribal specific ailments that have never appeared in other cultures. They are problems of governance that can be remedied if the political will to do so is present. When it’s not, the legislators will put the blame on us – the one group of people they are supposed to serve.

The Shillong Times, September 22 2010