David Stairs

Editor’s Note: With this posting we launch our Indian Journal category of D-A-P

India. For over thirty years, ever since seeing Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy in the 70’s, I’ve dreamed of being here. As is often the case, I made it elsewhere first, to Africa, which was a good buffer. Uganda has many of the same characteristics but a whole lot fewer people to contend with. I’ve owned a car in Africa, where the driving is risky, but nothing in the world remotely compares to the chaos that is Indian roads.

First, there’s great diversity. Drivers encounter pedestrians, cyclists, motorbikes, herds of cattle, horses, droves of jay-walking people, troops of monkeys, smoking three-wheeled jitneys, huge lorries, monster buses making right turns at uncontrolled intersections, food carts, wagons, you name it, it’s there. And amid this daunting activity imagine the cacophony of thousands of horns all sounding at once.

An Indian friend who has traveled in America says that drivers here must be fully aware at every moment, unlike in the U.S., where a driver could fall asleep at the wheel. For him, the nervous use of horns and headlights is an indication that people are communicating with one another. Never mind the close shaves with slow-moving vehicles, efforts to cut lines only to duck back in four cars ahead, vehicles stopped in the middle of the road, or instances of people driving the wrong way in an effort to cross lanes at a more convenient median divider. In India pedestrians do not have the right of way, ambulance sirens are ignored, and pollution control is not a matter for consideration. If in the land of the blind a one-eyed man is king, on India’s every-man-for-himself roadways, a non-aggressive driver is a blind man.

Unfortunately, casualties are high among Indians, according to the New York Times, the highest in the world at more than three times the U.S. fatality rate. Some would argue that India has more than three times America’s population, too. But in America, unlike India, millions of school children do not dash across dangerously congested roads dodging onrushing dump trucks and motorbikes as they walk to school every day. Is there a solution to India’s roadways? According to its representatives, road safety is important to the government. But, as with many things in this bright and bustling country, the proof is mostly good intentions. Regulation is non-existent, and the laws are flouted with impunity, almost as if that’s their purpose.

A gentle admonition ignored

Hopefully, planning will come to the rescue. Over and underpasses are rare, but more are being implemented. It’s an expensive fix, especially when retrofitting already existing infrastructure, but it’s a small price to pay to protect India’s kids.

David Stairs is the founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project