Timing the right turn

Traffic lights at Akashvani circle are a microcosm of modern India's obstacle to growth.

Some weeks ago, we were greeted by tall traffic lights at the ‘circle’ or crossroads near our house. It is both a gift and a curse. We navigate this busy juncture of six roads and lanes when going to shops, clubs, films, restaurants, the park, on foot or wheels, for a trip to the shrine on the hill.

At first we felt jubilant when we saw the lights at four points, mounted high on steel poles. But we found we had to join a long line of vehicles and wait for five minutes to inch forward to the new white line, only to witness the change of lights and a rush of the two-way streams opposite ours. What riles us most is the reflex of cars behind us rudely horning us when the lights are not yet down to green.

A panel at the top flashed a count-down of the number of seconds we must wait for the change of traffic flows.  But how to turn right, when one window ticks 134 and the other window answers 27 seconds? Despairing of delays, some drivers abandoned our vehicular queue. More confounding was an adjacent number panel showing a different count-down for a right-turn, symbolized by a green, angled arrow. Many found it easier to rely on their skills of cutting across roads or sidling through lanes of traffic with the win-win confidence of cattle.

Noticing this contretemps, the police posted smart men and women in uniforms to regulate what the automated timer-lights could not do. This was resented by mo-bike riders, who were already irked by the helmet rule. Likewise, the car-borne were ignoring the rule that those in front seats should have buckled safety belts or risk possible police detention, law’s delays and fines.

In result, a ten-minute trip to the grocery took fifteen minutes, teaching us the virtue of greater patience and tolerance, but also incensing us at many who defy the lights. No curbs can make the reckless obey rules of the road when they believe it is their right to rule the road. That evening, during our park walk, I heard similar plaints from acquaintances.

A lady railed at three-wheelers carrying huddles of school-kids home, with their satchels bulging out. “The trouble is, people don’t respect rules, though we are the most voluminous law-makers among democracies”. “Quite right, Sir,” Gyani butted in, “But what riles me is that these very offenders are scathingly scornful of those who believe that law and order sustain society, and should be firmly enforced.”

Our innovative traffic lights at Akashvani circle are a microcosm of modern India’s main obstacle to growth and security. Ours is the world’s largest democracy. But if we insist on choosing which laws we obey and to what extent, and if those who abide by lane discipline are scorned as cowards when others overtake us left, right and ‘centre’, we are unfit for our promised cyber-polis of the future.

 As one who has spent years in cities great and small, abroad and in India, I believe that the ethical deficit must be addressed, no less than those in fiscal, trade, technology, public health and education.

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