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An afternoon with the Traffic Police: Learning about citizen action

People like me, those who read a lot and write a lot and talk a lot, tend to be armchair activists. Especially when you work in the development sector, it’s hard to actually wear the hat of the citizen activist. I’ve put the tips of my fingers into several pies and then pulled out, feeling confused, under confident and sometimes just disillusioned.

Mine isn’t a novel story, I know. But last week,  I had the opportunity to take off my thinking & analysis cap and became a do-er. Inspired by Aparna, who lives in my community and believes in taking the bull by its horns, I joined a group approaching the Traffic Police to engage in a constructive conversation about specific traffic-related issues in our neighborhood.

To offer a background, I live in a housing condominium on Sohna Road. It is a significant six-lane highway that connects Gurgaon to the Sohna town and then further to Palwal, which lies on National Highway 2. The road sees huge amounts of traffic. In addition to inter-city traffic, Sohna Road has some of the densest residential developments in the city and the volume of local traffic generated is also a lot. Gurgaon’s infrastructure is patchy and constantly under development. After a painful few years in which the road was being upgraded, widened, dug for sewer lines and so on and so forth, we now more or less have the 6 lanes in place with service lanes on both sides. However, erroneous placement of cuts, wrong parking on service lanes, intersections without traffic lights and many such niggling issues make this stretch of the Gurgaon-Sohna road very dangerous for motorists, cyclists and pedestrians.


No traffic lights at this very busy junction. Result: Chaos and a huge strain on traffic police personnel

Video credit: Siddharth Chopra

Our demands

We (Aparna, Siddharth and me, who all live in the same condo) went in with a letter that Aparna had drafted to the Traffic Police asking for:

1-More effective traffic management at Subhash Chowk, a major intersection where a flyover is being constructed. The construction will go on for many months and there has been no temporary solution provided for managing traffic with the roads in very poor condition.

2-An erroneously designed pair of cuts on the divider and the opposite service lane on this stretch  because of which vehicles cut across and drive on the wrond side of the highway!

3-A solution for a poorly managed T-junction right outside our condo that is a traffic nightmare. The picture and video depict that point.

4-Removal of vehicles parked along the service lane that also causes traffic blockages at entry and exit points for residential and commercial complexes

Our experience

The officer we were to meet wasn’t available when we landed up at the Traffic Police office, but a junior policeman was kind enough to hear us out and advise us to catch hold of the Deputy Commissioner Police (DCP) for Traffic who was just about to head out with a pair of smug and smart looking men driving an expensive car! The DCP, upon learning we were residents of the city with a list of concerns, retreated into his office and heard us out. He was a bit high handed, but he did instruct the concerned Assistant Commissioner Police (ACP) to attend to our needs. This gentleman, who was newly posted to Gurgaon and barely familiar with its roads, called in the Traffic Inspector (TI) for our stretch and opened up his duty roster to us in a very transparent manner to discuss how we could delegate people more efficiently for smoother management of the traffic. Unfortunately, the police can’t do much to improve infrastructure and it has to petition the development authorities (HUDA- Haryana Urban Development Authority) or the local government (MCG- Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon) for making any physical improvements including improved street lights, traffic signals, road condition, speed breakers and even for cranes to carry away wrongly parked vehicles!

What we learnt OR  Things to remember while making requests to government departments

  • Government departments are restricted in terms of their jurisdiction, so we need to have a clear knowledge of who can do what
  • Writing letters is not in vain. Officers do get concerned when complaints come in, but follow up meetings and phone calls are important to drive home the points being made
  • A tone of consultation and partnership works better than one of confrontation; we do need to remember that officers are stressed and overworked. In this case, we felt bad pushing the TI Mr Jai Singh further because we all know how hard working and helpful he usually is. But we were upset by the casual attitude of the DCP, who seemed to want to deflect the blame for accidents rather than addressing the problems
  • Persistence is key. We now need to follow through on our requests and join forces with more concerned residents to place relentless pressure on the authorities till the important problems find solution

The real issue is one of poor road sense and attitude

While we pushed the police for solutions and while we are pushing the authorities for infrastructure, the real problem lies in the horrible way people drive in our city. There is a certain culture of driving each city has and in Gurgaon, that culture is aggression and a blatant flouting of traffic rules. We’re all in a blame game about who the offenders are, but the fact is everyone does- executives in big sedans, taxi drivers, young people, local villagers, drivers of public transportation, we are all to blame. We were, on our way back, talking about how we can change this in Gurgaon. How can we change the conversation from They drive badly to Let me not drive badly. Road attitude and etiquette, following traffic rules and thinking about safety for pedestrians and cyclists are important and it would be great to begin an awareness drive towards this.

Do write back if you have innovative ideas about such an awareness campaign or have seen something like this being done in your community, or elsewhere. Would love to hear from you.

Crowd control vs management: Getting shoved around while the police stared!

Stampede. Crowd management. Not a national strength, certainly. The unfortunate stampede in Allahabad during the Kumbh has once again made us think about how we behave in a crowd and how under-prepared authorities are to deal with such situations. To shrug and say this will happen is not acceptable!

On Republic Day this year, as we made our way to see the parade at India Gate, we experienced something akin to a stampede, a mini-stampede if you will. How it happened might give us a clue on what is awry in the handling of these situations.

So here we are, two couples with their kids, one of whom is a one year old baby and my friend is pregnant with her second. There are no clear signs on how to get from your parking to where your seating is. At one point, there is a barricade with a very narrow gap in it. The crowds surge towards this little gap. I hear people saying “dhakka do! dhakka do!” (push! push!). I panic, move to position myself behind my pregnant friend. Yell at a young man for pushing. I see Udai stumble over uneven ground. I manage to stop him from falling. I do not know where Rahul and Aadyaa are exactly.

In all this, the policemen near by are doing nothing to help. Instead they keep telling us the gates are going to shut soon and we must hurry!

Even at that time, I remember us discussing how idiotic their attitude was. They did not seem to have any training or skills in “managing” a crowd. Worse, they had no inclination to do; apparently it was ok for people to fall over each other, push and shove. It came right for us in the end but it was a few moments of sheer terror.

Clearly, controlling is not the same as managing in such a situation, though in this case the police weren’t doing either. In the context of experiences at protests in the aftermath of the Delhi gang rape as well as outside SRCC when Narendra Modi was speaking there and in the context right now of curfew in sensitive areas like Kashmir as well as for dealing with huge gatherings like the Kumbh, it becomes imperative for the police to have a strategy that encompasses aspects like proper signages, volunteers who can guide people, proper communication as well as working with other involved agencies like the Railways in the Kumbh context. I remember this was done decently during the Commonwealth Games by using college students as volunteers. It can be done, we can do it; but we must have the will and appreciate the value of human life!

Does Modi’s popularity mean giving free reign to communalists, misogynists? Shocking reports from a protestor at SRCC

There was much noise about Narendra Modi’s talk at SRCC yesterday. He spoke about development and used this powerful term to capture the imagination of students. Which is all very well.

However, there were protestors outside from what the media termed the “communist” section of DU. And they were treated shabbily, very very shabbily indeed. I may not have a huge case against Mr Modi per se, but if his leading this nation means we give free reign to all communal, misogynist elements in our society, we should all think really hard before we vote this man to power.

Here is an account from a girl who attended the protests, shared by a DU student and a friend of mine on her FB wall today. Prepare to be outraged, shocked, saddened….it’s not just the Kashmiri girl band Pragaash, it’s each one of us in danger!

“Ragini Jha (a student present at the protest): “On 6th of February, there was a large protest against the invitation of and talk by Narendra Modi by SRCC Students Union, organised by various students groups and individuals. The road in front of SRCC had 3 rows of barricades on each side, some of which were subsequently broken. The Delhi police was extremely vicious in their handling of the situation, and were both highly sexist and communal. They passed lewd comments about women standing near the barricade, made kissing gestures and noises, asked women to come closer and talk to them. They also very openly stared and laughed at women in a way that was clearly sexual. When a woman student demanded that women police officers be present at the barricade as well to confront women students, she was told ‘aap aurat kahaan se hain’. Women were also told repeatedly to give up as they’re too weak to break barricades. Some women were told that they should stop protesting or they would be meted the same treatment as women in Gujarat in 2002. At the police station, women students were groped and felt up by the police when they tried to enter.

In addition to this the police also detained 8 protestors. ABVP students were allowed on the other side of the barricade, one even climbed the water cannon, but none of them were detained. This was despite them threatening students, particularly women, by saying things like “jo gujrat ke aurton ka haal kiya wohi tera hoga”. The police, after lathi charging students, laughing and joking as they did so, went on to drag students and throw them in the middle of ABVP and RSS activists, where they were further beaten up.

They were attacked by both ABVP goons and the police, who were supporting each other. The police were particularly obnoxious, whistling and winking at the female students (who were also groped at the Thana) and beating them (and the boys) up sadistically with lathis in addition to water cannons. The ABVP threatened them with Gujarat-like consequences – “Jo Gujarat mein huya vaise tujh me ghusa doonga” while brandishing a stick and similar things. Meanwhile the police were watching and laughing at the girls and other protestors and saying things like “kar le jo karna hai, kya kar payegi” and openly supporting the ABVP students, who were even dancing on the water cannons as they aimed at the protestors. The worst is that they would pick up some of the protestors (including young women) and push them into a crowd of ABVP goons who would then beat them. Some protestors were picked up and taken to the police station, and beaten up on the way (including on the head and groin with lathis). NONE of this shocking stuff is coming out in any of the news reports.”

Missing the point! Delhi police ad to aid women’s safety

This ad is in the papers this morning and its good to see the police sending out a strong message about something that has really become a talking point in Delhi and where the police have taken a huge beating to their reputation.
In a presentation to the LG, DDA body UTTIPEC had suggested pro active campaigns that used images of men to reinforce that men need to take the initiative on an issue like violence against women as opposed to constantly showing a woman as a victim. Looks like the suggestion was well taken. I am a bit concerned about the copy here though. It suggests that men should take personal action (beat them?) against perpetrators of crimes against women. It’s only the small print that clarifies that the suggestion is for men to report other men who they observe committing such crimes!
While I think it’s a great idea to start a campaign that calls on citizens to partner with the police, I am not sure this sends out the right message! Comments anyone?


Free entertainment at the registrar’s office- July 24, 2012

Random things can amuse you when you are in an amusable frame of mind. Today, mum and me spent some quality time together at the Mini Secretariat in Gurgaon. We were there to register the sales deed for mum’s old apartment. Since we had done the buying thing in April, we knew the drill. The registry office and indeed the entire building seemed to be in an afternoon stupor and things progressed smoothly, more or less.

In the midst of groups of people on their mission to buy and sell homes, offices, shops, etc, roamed a single beggar girl. Yes, right next to the Police Commissioner’s offices, in a nation where begging is technically illegal, there was this girl asking everyone for money. People simply stared at her, bewildered that she should be here at all. Didn’t she belong to the traffic lights, the pavement outside the Metro station, the parking area outside the local market? On our previous visit, there was a shoeshine boy as well; apparently, he offered to shoeshine mum’s chappals! Anyway, back to the beggar girl. An auntyji (no offence, but I can only call her that!) actually interrogated her, wanting to know if there were more like her lurking outside before shelling out a few coins to send her packing. Miraculously, they did!

Meanwhile, we kept being asked to move seats, then go to some window to complete one process and to another window to complete another. The people we were selling to were also entertaining. The buyer did not smile once at us (he condescended to contort his mouth into a grimace that could, with a stretch of imagination, be construed as a smile; but I refuse to give in!), even though we have met thrice by now. Towards the end of the process, he did smile at the bank representative who checked the documents in the end! Go figure!

His wife, the co-buyer, simply sat obediently in one or the other chair, rising to place her signatures wherever required. In the final few minutes, out of curiosity, I picked up a conversation with her and discovered she is a highly qualified professional with a well-established practice! One would not have known from her melt-into-the-furniture demeanor at all!

The most entertaining, though, was the buyer’s father. A simple soul he seemed to be, describing his humble background and thanking my mum profusely several times for selling her house to his son. He asked for her blessings, invited us to his home in Delhi where he lives with his wife, also a retired government servant like him. He told us about his daughter and her life, his expectations from his children, his joys and sorrows. At some point when we got busy, I noticed he had wandered into another group and was even having animated conversation with these people he didn’t know from Adam! What a guy he was!

I had quite a lot of fun there. An hour and a half of doing nothing but people-watching, since I wasn’t really needed for anything but moral support. Watching the machinery of a property registry office in operation-the touts, the professional brokers, the clerks, the acceptance of corruption as a nearly legitimate part of the system, the hangers on, the worried folks, the bored ones, the excitable and the matter-of-fact ones, the large groups that discussed everything loudly, the obscure and efficient ones that did their work and scuttled away!

What did they think of us, the others who were as bored and amusable this morning? A giggly pair of floosies? A mother-daughter duo that didn’t stop jabbering? A crazy twosome? I only hope we entertained them all as well!

We deserve responsible policing and safe cities- Jan 13, 2012

It’s Friday, the 13th and I’m not scared of the friends from the world beyond, but the weirdos from our own planet! Two stories reported by friends this week outline the precariously dangerous lives we lead in the urban environs of Delhi. One woman friend’s car was stopped by motorcyclists, who threatened and verbally abused her in a state of inebriation. Only her crisis management skills got her out of that situation safely. Another friend told me about a gory incident in which guys in an auto teased a woman two-wheelerist. They then lodged a stick on the handle of her scooty, bringing it down and dragging her on the tarmac. No one stopped to help and the girl needs cosmetic surgery and is nursing a broken jaw as well!

Stuff like this is a nightmare; we all (and its not only women, I know men friends who have faced worse) hope to God we aren’t involved in any such situation. We can talk endlessly about why these things are happening. In my view, these are clear fallouts of rapid, unplanned urbanization; the clash of conflicting cultures and lifestyles and above all, a large young, unemployed, direction-less population.

The problem is no one is addressing these issues. These situations need a two-fold response; swift disciplinary action by the police and a parallel awareness and outreach campaign that goes out to urban villages, low-income settlements, RWAs and even corporate organizations in the city.

The outreach should:

1- clearly outline what is wrong

2- publicize a zero-tolerance policy

3- set up a complaint/counseling cell & encourage people to approach it

4- hold workshops to sensitize people about what to do in such a situation, and to talk about their experiences openly

However, all of this will only stand good if there is a committed backing from the police force and political class. The Gurgaon police however, in a recent interview, blamed the deteriorating crime scenario on “migrants” and that seriously confused me! The large majority of Gurgaon’s population would come under this banner, rich and poor, illiterate and super-educated alike! It’s easy to target the poor (and I mean economically impoverished) Bengali and Bihari migrants, but who disciplines the moneyed, lawless testosterone-charged local youths who brandish desi guns and strut around like they still own the land the rest of us live on? Doesn’t law apply to everyone? And since the city is one of the highest tax generating areas in the country, what right does the police have to differentiate between locals and migrants, given many of us migrants pay taxes here? Whatever protection we need, we are entitled to it, right?

I know this sounds like a rant….my apologies. I also know that the perception of crime can be vastly greater than the reality. However, when the authorities make excuses instead of coming down hard on goons, it doesn’t instill much confidence in citizens. Living in gated communities and stepping into a lawless hell outside your gates doesn’t make for sensible living. We all need to work harder and make more noise for those in power to understand, recognize and act on this!


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