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11th October '2009
The Traffic Mess

Every citizen of Srinagar must have experienced the worst traffic jams seen in the recent times. Sometimes one gets caught for hours together. The traffic mess is the hottest topic of discussion in every social gathering. Most of the time the blame for mismanagement is put on the Traffic Police. There is absolutely no doubt that the Traffic Police are not fully doing the job they are meant to do. Their main duty these days is to ensure unhindered movement of VIPs’ on the congested roads of Srinagar. Their second and probably the main job is to collect “Hafta” from the matador and truck drivers. On most of the crossings one can see the traffic policemen glued to their walkie talkie sets monitoring the movement of VIPs’. Usually, the rest of the traffic finds its own way and three to four policemen at each crossing appear busy in gossip. As regards the real culprits for the mess, the top position is taken by the matadors. They consider the roads as their own property and feel as if there are no other users. They can stop in the middle of the road; at any crossing or turn and pick up or drop passengers. For them bus stops do not exist. In fact, this mentality has a specific background. Initially, they used to ply Tongas on the narrow city roads. The Government for smooth flow of traffic ordered removal of these ancient means of transport. In return they were given permits for operating the matadors which they now practically drive like Tongas. They cannot get over the habit of soliciting customers for different destinations as they used to do while plying the Tongas. They virtually operate in the same fashion and the traffic policemen look the other way after their palms are regularly greased. Next are the auto-drivers. They have no inhibition in overtaking from the right or the left. They too drive their autos like racing bikes. Finally are the official cars, usually white ambassadors with red lights and sirens. These days every Tom, Dick, and Harry can put up a red light. Sometimes it is pathetic to see the really deserving emergency vehicles like ambulances and fire tenders stuck in traffic while the non-deserving go past all obstacles without any hindrance. All security and defence vehicles are exempt from the operation of all traffic and other rules, thanks to AFSPA! Driving on Srinagar roads not only demands the steering skills of the highest order but one has to be prepared for developing hyper-tension! A number of my relations and friends from abroad prefer to use local chauffeurs rather than drive these on their own. Sometimes one does not like to drive to the busy city centre because of the traffic hassles. It is preferable to walk than get stuck in the mad traffic.

What is the real cause of this mess and is there a solution? That is the million dollar question. Sometime back the Traffic Department launched its website and issued a journal, the “Trafficinfo”. In the journal, the Chief of Traffic Police has written a detailed 19-page article about the causes of traffic mess on Srinagar roads. The various causes given for the mess include the disproportionate growth ratio between roads and vehicles; irrational planning; illegal occupation of foot paths; irrational transport policy; insufficient parking slots; inadequate vehicle stands, and so on. It also points out the lack of traffic engineering measures; inadequate technology; lack of co-ordination among allied agencies, and above all unplanned urbanisation. However, one of the most important causes is the lack of traffic sense and mass education about it. Finally, the unpleasant security scenario restricting free movement on all city roads is also an important factor. The information is quite educative. About 50 years back or so the population of Srinagar was less than 2 lakhs and now it is almost 15 lakhs. Those days there were less than a hundred cars in Srinagar and now we have more than 2 lakh vehicles. Kashmir itself has over 7 lakh vehicles. Those days there were no three wheelers. Now we have all kinds of vehicles of all shapes and sizes. However, the worst culprits are the departments and organisations responsible for various civic services. They not only refuse to enforce the basic criteria of urban development and planning but on the contrary themselves create intractable problems. The agencies which should have been concerned with land use, zoning of urban areas, planning and expansion of roads, and enforcement of various rules and bye laws of town planning are on a spree of constructing shopping lines, complexes, malls, and other such huge and mega structures. The plea given is earning of revenue for the state or the respective organisations. The state as well as the concerned organisations could very well do without these revenues which never reach their coffers in full! It would have been better had they performed their primary duty.

An instance of unnecessary traffic hazard is the mushrooming of fountains at road crossings. No where in the world are fountains constructed in the centre of a road crossing. These obstruct the view of drivers from all sides and are the biggest traffic hazards. These decorative pieces could be tucked on some selected spots on the sides of the roads. In some places almost half of the road on either side is used by shop-keepers to display their wares. Foot paths are invariably under illegal occupation forcing pedestrians to walk on the roads which reduces the space for the vehicle drivers. Most annoying is the double sided parking on virtually all roads. The driving space gets reduced to virtually a single lane and causes traffic jams. The stark instance of lack of co-ordination among various agencies is the macadamizing of roads by PWD and the instant digging of the same by PHE and Telephone Departments. Most of these departments compete with each other in creating road hazards. In some of the main roads even after macadamizing, the manholes are like death traps especially at night and for two wheelers. These represent sudden dips and sometimes gapping holes in otherwise smooth roads. One has to be extra careful to avoid fatal accidents.

Now let us take the topic of traffic sense and knowledge of rules. The less said about it, the better! Fast lane, slow lane, zebra crossing, yellow line, double yellow line, and similar other basic words from the traffic terminology are unknown not only to common public but even to the traffic constables directing and monitoring the movement of vehicles on roads and at different crossings. One does not need any technical or other knowledge of driving to get a licence in Srinagar. It can be safely delivered at your home provided you have the means and the resources. It does not matter even if you are a minor. The same holds good for the fitness of vehicles including their pollution control. One can easily see trucks and buses running on the roads belching thick black plumes of smoke. Kashmiris are also very fond of klaxons. In Europe or America people feel slighted if someone blows a horn at them. These are used in dire emergency or if someone commits a gross violation of traffic rules. Ordinarily every one uses light indicators. Seeing the immensity of the “Traffic Mess” it seems doubtful if we would be ever able to sort it out. It requires political will of colossal proportions. It may be better to replace the Traffic Police by Armed Police. One often observes that the security forces convoys have always a smooth flow as their men stop all traffic and ensure safe passage of their vehicles. No one, including even the VIPs’ travelling in Flag cars dare challenge their writ!

The City of Srinagar has become the most polluted city with every one in a mad rush. I recall an interesting event which may give some consolation. In mid seventies I conducted a group of 25 French journalists to different parts of the city. They were delighted and were in love with Srinagar. On my asking them the reason for their enchantment, they said Srinagar was a living city full of life. The noise, the humdrum, the pollution and the crazy traffic was something they could never see in Europe. Well, that may be a big attraction for the European tourists on a short visit but for the local inhabitants it is a hell everyday. As we have ourselves created this hell, even Almighty God may not help us!

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