Hum Jo Chalne Lage – driving on Indian roads

Hum Jo Chalne Lage – the pleasant (and copied) Shaan solo composed by Pritam for the film Jab We Met – brings forth idyllic impressions of travelling in India. But does driving in India square up with such visages? Lately, I have a ringside view and I believe driving on our roads tells us a lot about why things are the way they are.

I say lately because I didn’t used to drive, didn’t have to. Having grown up in Mumbai, I am used to navigating the packed local trains in this city and inured to the supposed difficulty of it…on most days anyway. I took driving lessons and got my licence made years back. But everybody knows driving school and the business of actually driving by yourself in India are entirely different.

But as the pandemic and the attendant lockdowns raged on, I realized that local trains would be shut for a long time, longer than it would take for at least my workplace to resume office operations. And even if they did, I wouldn’t feel comfortable with the complete lack of distancing in the trains. So I used the time to learn driving…this time with my dad’s driver. It was his parting gift of sorts to me, as my dad retired this year. He taught me important things about the practical aspects of driving in and adjusting to dense city traffic. After a few trips back and forth to my workplace, he said I was ready and pushed me off the nest. It’s been three months since then and I have been doing OK. If I did have close shaves occasionally in the beginning, I am in control these days, to the extent one can be on Indian roads and I will get to that.

There is something about Indian roads that you would probably not perceive unless you are a driver. Which is that often times, what YOU, as a passenger, may take to be good roads are NOT good roads. A road without potholes is a good one, right? Wrong! The level of the road surface needs to be reasonably constant without unexpected undulations. Unfortunately, that is often not the case in India.

I will talk about a particularly treacherous spot – which is just where the double decker flyover portion of Santacruz-Chembur Link Road (SCLR as we call it here) lands when going towards Santacruz. The flyover kind of bends as you descend and join CST road in Kurla. The problem is there is a steep embankment on the rightmost lane with a sort of pit in the middle. This means your car will suddenly lose ‘footing’ as it gets there. The first time I drove through that patch, I was not aware of this and my car, clocking no more than 70 kph, skidded a bit. I am a vigilant driver, maybe because I am ‘new, so I braked in time and cut the speed enough to get through it. But nothing in the flyover design prepares you for that and it’s a wonder that there haven’t been more accidents in that stretch. While negotiating it, I remembered that bizarre incident where a vehicle practically flew off a flyover in Hyderabad and crashed onto the road below! Yes, that happened, for real!

Was that rash driving on the part of the driver? To some extent, yes. But only a poorly designed flyover would cause a vehicle to simply fly off a flyover. But this is India and we do poor designs all the time.

And THAT brings me to the good and the bad about the experience of driving in India or why drivers have to drive the way they/we do.

The roads are either bad or inadequate for the volume of traffic (or both) and there is also very little space devoted to footpaths leading to pedestrians having to occupy the road shoulders as they walk.

This forces drivers to engage in a constant battle of one-upmanship on the roads to grab that inch of real estate before the other guy does. Trust me, the reason you see vehicles lane jumping and zig zagging isn’t because ‘we Indians are like that only’. It’s because everyone is looking to get out of the mess that we call Indian roads as soon as possible. I know because I do too, as somebody who used to complain about lane cutting from the vantage point of the passenger’s seat. It’s not necessarily because it saves time (though it does, to some extent) but because from the moment you wade into heavy and chaotic traffic, you are trying to get out of the chaos as soon as you can.

You may protest and insist that no, give Indians any road and they will still drive like this. But I have a couple or more of counter examples. On Bandra Worli Sea Link, on the Eastern Freeway or on Palm Beach Road, the road surface is good, cruising speeds are easily attained and drivers tend to relax. I wouldn’t say there is NO rash driving but on these roads, you can sit back and enjoy the experience of driving for a bit. I have yet to take my car out for a spin there but you can observe the same thing on the Mumbai Pune Expressway. There is the odd impatient twat but mostly, even the honking subsides almost to nothing and there is hardly any lane cutting. Why would you cut lanes when there isn’t a car behind or ahead of you for several metres?

But the rest of the time…you are trying to navigate the chaos. And here’s the good part of it. The good part is that to a man, every driver is aware of the chaos. Even the bullies. The bullies may switch on the high beam and honk until you yield but they all calculate their risks.

So…when somebody cuts lanes in front of your nose, you will honk and accelerate and try your best to stop them…right up to the point where you physically cannot thwart them anymore. And at that point, you will brake and let them pass. And they will return the favour when you barge in in front of them. Everybody knows it’s not personal. And everybody knows where to stop before you end up colliding into each other.

This is the paradox of Indian roads. In the chaos, there is safety. We intuit that we are in a high risk zone and we must be careful while at the same time not being so cautious that we get left behind and get stuck in the mess.

Here’s a little video that compares. Of course it cherry picks suitable examples but it’s also true that an accident of the sort you see in the first couple of instances is rare in India because we know better than to speed through a junction. We expect the worst and prepare.

And in this way, Indian roads are a microcosm of life in India. We are masters at navigating chaos. We do it at world beating standards. But we are so good at it that we forget that we don’t HAVE to do that all the time, that we can build our way out of chaos. What got us here may not be enough to get us to where we seem to want to go. But do we really want to, is the question.

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