Of Indian Roads and Indians

01 Sep 2010
Posted by Kiran

It is no secret that what happens on the Indian roads is best described as controlled chaos. Expecting orderly traffic while driving in India is probably not the best idea. I have driven in India since 1994; even then, each time I go abroad and return, it takes me a while to get used to the kind of driving witnessed in India.

I read somewhere that driving in India is basically pointing your vehicle in the general direction you want to go and stepping on the accelerator — and hoping to god that you don't get hit by something. That description quite summarizes what drivers in India go through every day.

Here are a few points about Indian driving and Indians that everyone who wishes to visit India and possibly drive here should know.

1. The Red Light doesn't necessarily mean "Stop".

If you find vehicles jumping red lights amazing, you'd be amazed on a daily basis driving on Indian roads. Jumping red lights is more of a rule here. Heck, folks even start honking their horns at you if you are blocking them from moving ahead. That the light in front is still red doesn't matter — at all.

2. We drive on the most convenient side of the road; mostly left.

Ford Ikon on the wrong side
Car on the wrong side and with his headlights on

The law states that, in India, every vehicle needs to stick to the left side of the road. But then rules are meant to be broken, aren't they? The fact is that we drive on the most convenient side of the road. If sticking to the left isn't the shortest or the easiest route, then swerve to the right! The driver in the picture decided that sticking to the left of the divider on the road would be inconvenient for him. Hence, he simply drove down the wrong side of the road.

When confronted with such a specimen, it is best to move out of his way and let him pass. Getting in his way or trying to reason with him will only be to your detriment.

3. Switching on your headlights gives you the right of way.

People feel that flashing their bright headlights at you will somehow daze you into believing that they have the right of way, even when they are driving on the wrong side of the road or grossly cutting you off.

The driver in the picture above dutifully switched on his headlights to let me, and others who were driving on the correct side of the road, know that he had the right of way. At least that is what he expected us to understand and believe.

A load of children
You wouldn't carry live stock like this!

4. As long as it doesn't fall out, a vehicle can carry it.

Now, look at this picture on the right. This is a kind of scene you will probably see almost on a daily basis on Indian roads. A truck crammed with people, a goods-auto full of children, cattle, whatever.

What was the driver of this auto thinking when he loaded up his goods-carrier with children and started driving it through one of the main roads of the city? Probably nothing. Therein lies the beauty of Indian driving. Let us not waste our time thinking about the parents who would allow such a practice.

As I said, as long as it doesn't fall out, it is OK to carry anything on any vehicle. And if it does fall out, too bad!

5. Following the rules is optional when cops aren't around

To put it more accurately: following the rules is optional if you don't get caught, even when there are cops around. Indian drivers routinely drive down the wrong side of the road, go the wrong way down a one-way street, jump red lights and pretty much break every rule there is in the book.

The few cops out there have pretty limited authority in dealing with such traffic crimes. Forget high-speed chases or actually tracking down such offenders. If the cops are lucky they may apprehend a miniscule percentage and levy a pittance as a spot-fine. Moreover, a large number of the cops are corrupt rule-breakers themselves and can easily be bought with a small bribe.

Hence, breaking Indian traffic rules doesn't have a large deterrent attached to it.

There are many more such rules in the unofficial guide to Indian driving. These unwritten rules can only be learnt the hard way — by driving in India and learning on the go.

Truck on the wrong side
Truck drives up the wrong side

In my opinion, the chaos on Indian roads is a classic illustration of the Indian attitude towards society. We rarely care about how our actions are going to affect others. There is scant respect for public infrastructure and people will immediately don the "why are you so bothered" look if you try to question any of their actions that disrupts public systems. The general belief is that as long as I stay out of your house, you have no reason to question my actions. Apathy is expected out of everyone and if someone actually cares, he is ridiculed for it.

India is a fast developing economy and we routinely tout ourselves as the forthcoming super-power. Our economy is far stronger than it used to be and we have arrived on the world stage portraying ourselves as a young, vibrant democracy. Indians are never far behind when it comes to taking credit for and feeling proud of the achievements of other people considered to be of Indian descent.

I believe that this pride is the problem. We refuse to accept that there is something wrong with our society. We believe we are number one, irrespective of the level of corruption, the number of power cuts, the pot-holes or the water scarcity; we are number one and always will be.

This belief is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that anyone who comes along and tells us that we are doing something wrong is bound to be out of his mind!

The Indian road culture is one of those things that make me wonder if India will ever change, if it will ever reach the same league as a developed nation. The Indian roads are a fantastic illustration of a larger phenomenon that stops India from being all that it can be today — the Indian Chaltha Hai attitude.