Taming street-people: India’s grand civilizational project

“Ranchi is an amazing city. In my first 30 minutes there, two schoolchildren, one bike rider and a goat tried to kill themselves in front of my car.”

Let’s hear what Karthik Rao-Cavale has to say about this in his blog India lives in her cities too!
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A status message by a friend on Facebook has had me thinking for many weeks now. He wrote:

Ranchi is an amazing city. In my first 30 minutes there, two schoolchildren, one bike rider and a goat tried to kill themselves in front of my car.

I have given this a great deal of thought, and I have had to come to the conclusion that my friend’s language is disingenuous. He speaks as if the schoolchildren and the goat were actually going to commit the act that would result in death, but he’s wrong. When a car hits a pedestrian and the pedestrian dies, the car kills the pedestrian.

By no means does this automatically imply that the driver is at fault. The task of assigning fault is normative, and we as a society devise norms to assign fault when collisions occur. But that does not take anything away from the fact that the car kills the pedestrian. In such cases, the pedestrians themselves possess neither the speed nor the force to maim and kill. Only the motor vehicle has any such ability.

In my friend’s case, I can safely assume that he was not over-speeding, and that he was sufficiently in control of his vehicle. We may also assume that the pedestrians were violating traffic rules at the time. But before we dispose of the matter by placing the blame on the pedestrians, we need to look more closely into the rules themselves. Do they distribute responsibility for safety in a fair manner?

In the Indian context, pedestrians have right of way only at marked crossings but most intersections in India do not have painted crossings. Where zebra crossings exist, the pedestrian’s right-of-way is not enforced. Sometimes cities create “signal-free corridors” so that one could go miles without seeing a pedestrian crossing. Most streets have no sidewalks. In short, pedestrians are left to fend for themselves, and are responsible for their own safety. When motor vehicles bring in the risk of death, why are pedestrians given most of the responsibility of preventing it?

The first motor car arrived at the turn of the 20th century. Almost immediately, traffic deaths started creating an uproar in the cities of America and Europe. Peter Norton gives a detailed account of the politics of traffic management that followed the growth of the automobile industry in the United States. (Here’s my review of Norton’s book) Norton writes that “before the city could be physically reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where automobiles unquestionably belong”. In short, the rules of the game had to be changed in order to make way for automobiles on city streets.

Norton writes about how the automobile lobby promoted rules that favoured motorists. The term “jaywalking” was introduced at this time, and pedestrians who cross mid-block were caricatured as being unsophisticated and boorish. Children were taught in school to cross only at marked crossings, and they were told that they had equal responsibility in preventing accidents.

It occurs to me that such propaganda bears remarkable similarity to the notion of the “white man’s burden” that European colonizers used to justify their tyranny.  The caricatures of jaywalking pedestrians correspond to early European prejudices about oriental people. In the meanwhile, streets that were used for several millennia by pedestrians and other street people (street vendors, for instance) were effectively invaded by automobiles. Rules advantageous to the colonizers were then enforced as a way of “civilizing” the “uncivilized”.

My friend’s comment wouldn’t bother me as much, if it wasn’t representative of official government policy in India. . . .

* For the remainder of this article and comments click here to India lives in her cities too!.

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About the author:

Karthik Rao-Cavale writes: “I am working towards a master’s degree in city and regional planning from the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. Previously, I got a B.Tech in Mechanical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, but I found that making cars is not as much fun as getting rid of them – that’s my excuse for making the shift. I work part-time at Voorhees Transportation Center, on a project that seeks to quantify the carbon footprint of capital projects.

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