The Indian Way of Traffic Movement (And Life!)

I’ve been meaning to write this blog post for a while. Ever since I moved back to India, and started driving on Indian roads, I’ve been frustrated by the disobeyance of rules and the seeming chaos that prevails on Indian roads. Funnily, subconsciously one day my mind started analysing the craziness of Delhi traffic, and some funny analogies to life in India emerged. (This thinking also prevents any instances of road rage on my part).

Delhi roads have this amalgamation of extremely slow moving vehicles (such as rickshaws, tempos, etc.) to potentially very fast moving vehicles (the Audis and the BMWs of the world). Average speeds on Indian roads remain really slow however due to the fact that the fast moving vehicles can never really move that fast (Except maybe at night) – a paradox seen in the Indian economy – where the most efficient, the most productive actors in the Indian economy are held back by the inefficient, unproductive actors stuck in the old ways of doing things.

Every one is in a rush to overtake you. As cars (or bikes or scooters) are driving they are almost always trying to find ways to go faster. It is frustrating, and irritating, but that to me represents this endless desire to innovate. Its amazing – there is this restlessness among Indian drivers that you will not find in the U.S. necessarily. Drivers as a result end up finding new (often shorter or faster) routes sometimes (of course many times they are just going over this sidewalk or that divider to do that).

This overtaking and speeding – this race on India’s roads that you’re inevitably part of – also teaches you a lot. Often you find that you speed up, overtake someone and then end up stopping at the traffic light ahead. Meanwhile, the guy behind you who has moving much slower than you actually overtakes you at the traffic light because when he gets to the traffic light, it has turned green. So he doesn’t need to slow down, whereas you have to start all over again. So in India it might not be the best idea to move too fast sometimes.

No one will wait for you in India. If you give way to the pedestrians, another car from behind you will overtake you and might actually not let the pedestrians cross. So its hard to be nice in India right now. This is of course one of this Prisoner’s Dilemma sort of situations, where since no one now expects the other person to cooperation, we all end up with the worst outcome for all.

Traffic in Delhi also throws up a philosophical question – or maybe its actually a mathematical optimisation problem. The question in my mind – having driven both in the U.S. and India – is whether it is more efficient (at scale, that is, with a lot of vehicles on the roads) to drive the way the Americans do (observing lanes etc.) or the way the Indians do (not observing lanes, not observing rules, etc.). To their credit, Indian drivers are making use of every inch of the roads available to them by squeezing 3 cars and a bike in a 2 lane road. But then the same Indian drivers often also cause the most unnecessary of jams by “blocking the box”, so to say. The analogous question about life is whether the Indian way of living (not observing rules, jugaad, etc.) is better than the rule-obeying societies of the West. Not really sure which one is better.

Of course, this crowding of Indian roads and lack of space between cars is analogous to life in India. People don’t really have this concept of space – the way Americans might. Not only do they not give you space when you’re standing in a line or in the metro, young couples in India today often complain that their parents (or the in-laws) don’t give them space.

Might is often right also on Indian roads. The bigger or the more expensive your car, the more you are likelier to be treated with respect and the more you are able to get away with stuff. Of course, sometimes the flip side is true. The cops will specifically target you because you have the bigger, more expensive car.

Its also relatively easy to get away with traffic offences in India – either with a small bribe to the cop or sometimes just speeding away of most frequently because there are no cops around. Similarly in life, many folks in India get away with crime or violations simply by paying a small fraction of the benefit they accrue (a commission essentially) to the guy who’s supposed to prevent them from doing it or punish them for doing it.

Any other analogs that I’m missing?


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