Wednesday, July 30, 2008

On Crow's Pad - Can our Roads be Better in the Reasonable Future?

The last couple of days I opened my eyes a little more wider so as to take in a wider picture of this menace of potholed roads and the maddenning traffic problems of Kochi. With no efforts by the local governing bodies in sight, I was making a mental note of the roads that were the worst hit as I was driving around in the city. My exploits are limited to the southern end of the city. May be someone staying and commuting elsewhere in the city would like to give his account of the situation on ground.

The road that hits me hard - more than me my car and bike - on a daily basis is the one that leads us out to Thevara Jn. from Panampilly Nagar south end. This is where now-a-days I am learning the tricks they probably might teach only in a course for aspiring tight rope walkers. Only here, my medium is the network of pocket roads that provides me an easy route clear of the railway tracks to my workplace next to Thevara.

Over the past one week, thanks to the late - Latheef of the season(monsoons), this road has become a treacherous combination of loose gravel, a collection of pools of muddy water (enviable only by boys the age of my son) and dotted with patches of black which remind you about the road that once existed around. While during the day, it is possible to estimate the likely centre of the potholes (their diameter usually changes from morning to evening) so that I can navigate my vehicle somewhat smartly so as to clear their merciless depths; nights and rainy days requires my guardian angel sitting as my pillion or navigator to guide me into the right moment to flick the handle left or right so as to deftly manouvre with the minimum chance of a fall into the demonic series of pits the road has been reduced to. In this perilous drive, if a smart cookie comes opposite, in an equally smart fancy car or bike, then I' damned. It then becomes a fight for survival. I - provided I'm thinking clearly and of course, thanks to my guardian angel - instinctively move my vehicle to a vantage position so that most portion of the road that is safe is on my side to be used as I might feel. If not, I stand to get bullied to the edge of the road by the smarter cookie where I find myself to be the odd one out among uniformed students, men and women on foot who invariably give me that typical Mallu-brand contorted Angry-Young-Man look as if I'm a marinated seer fish in the ready-use tray of 'Sea Grill' ready to be fried and eaten up.

I soon reset my memory out of the busy mental recalculation of the hefty power bill I had been handed out promptly in the morning by my 'Home Minister' and some how crawl clear of the smar cookies on to what is left of the road, to continue my journey to my workplace to earn my daily bread. A stretch of road that should normally take not more than four to five minutes to travel eats up 15 precious minutes of the morning and just as I had thought I had broken free, there I am standing either behind or in front of the Red Monsters of Kochi's streets. In Delhi they were dubbed as the 'Red-lined Killers' for the top score they achieved year after year in killing innocent passengers and two wheeler drivers on the roads of Delhi. I struggle to keep my cool as the Killer bully honks away to glory as if he is carrying a hundred wounded soldiers to the city's best hospitals, with the only mission to save their lives. It seems the Red Monster has purchased the Title Deeds for the roads himself when he stops right at the centre of the road to pick up and drop passangers. I wish I had some of the amazing gadgetry of Power Rangers that my son frequently talks about to make the Killer Bully and his Red Monster vanish from the face of the earth. The long line crawls ahead and I manage to re-position myself out of sight and earshot of the Red Monster. By the time I'm at my work bench, I'm tired, exhausted and disgusted. On many days I end up cursing the day I decided to agree to come back and work in Kochi.

I thank my stars for the technology hasn't come yet when they could make our vehicles speak, or my car or bike would have screamed abuses at me for taking them out on such filthy, unkempt 'roads'. It may not be too long before my mechanic would become a family friend for the rest of my life as a token of a not so good a memory to cherish of Kochi. Wah! True Communism - no better way to bring ordinary men closer to each other!! Long Live Red Salute!! Laloo Yadav would have been a better bet, though he might decide to take away my car at gun point for his grand son's first day at school!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Crow's Pad - The Traffic Problem in Kochi City

Kochi as I had left it half a decade ago was one city which was brimming with confidence to take on the fresh challenges of the future. Many a man I had met on the sidelines of the city in 2003 was vocal on the Technopark that was shaping up at Kakkanad, the Container Terminal that was about to materialise at the Port and was eager to be part of the discussions that were doing the rounds in the print as well as visual media about a Single Buoy Mooring that was to be moored off the coast for downloading crude oil from large ships. They were enthusiastic about the way the city was coming up and were even heard comparing the future of the city to that of intricately planned port cities of the Persian Gulf. Some folks were even heard taking names of famous port cities of the West in comparison to Kochi. They were politically correct in voicing their enthusiasm and stating the employment opportunities that such scale of development would usher in into a city which at that time had one of the highest concentrations of educated, but unemployed youth. Soon, I heard from the skies that a concept called 'Smart City' has taken shape in the minds of the ruling leaders that would bring Kochi into the world's eye as a nodal point for large scale business ventures with a mammoth investment base derived from external as well as internal sources. I felt proud myself as a NRK having had a very emotional attachment to the city, though not born and brought up here.

Interestingly, no one ever talked about the city's capacity to take in the human population that would invariably flow into the city in the years to come as and when each of these mega projects would develop into fruition. Perhaps the men of those days were more interested in taking these big names and flouting them well rather than do an in-depth analysis of the after-effects of development. It made me wonder why nobody was even thinking about this fact given the peculiar nature of the land in this place.

Those (2003) were also the days when four wheeler prices were dipping and the ordinary government employee was realising that his dream of a car for his family could very well materialise; if only he could tighten his belts and those of his kids' and wife's as well a bit more than the day before. This he did honestly and not only in Kochi, but elsewhere in India too, the small car population increased manifold. The good old cycle of the 'meenkaaran' gave way to cheap mopeds - M-80 of the Hamara Bajaj family - which were a hit in my college days with roaming romeos. By then the roaming romeos had 'graduated' to 100cc bikes and carried on to become executives in well-paying jobs which gave them the opportunity to own dream cars with more-than-required power and size. While the neo-rich were fiddling with their ideas of being Rich and Powerful, there came a generation which was born into the economical freedom bestowed upon us by none other than the then FM and now PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh - a generation that had neither seen want in their adolescent days nor seen financial prudence being exercised in their families. This generation is what we see now as adults that have just taken on the the most ordinary jobs to the most paying jobs for starters in today's job market. The result - we have on our roads today, bullies as bus drivers and smart, intelligent, tech-savvy, no-nonsense, non-accommodative, mean, selfish, well-fed and well-clothed adult brats zipping past in powerful, oversize cars and bikes not knowing that something called Rules of the Road (ROR) ever existed in civilised life.

As I return to Kochi, I see that the empowered lot of youngsters as I have mentioned above have the rules cut out for themselves when it comes to driving on the roads. For them, Kochi is the rosy picture they have drawn for themselves; a city that, by their yardstick measures, up to any other metro in India or abroad. They seem to tread on clouds not wanting to realise the real state of affairs on ground. One heartening fact I could notice is that the local Police has been able to effectively enforce the wearing of helmets on two wheeler drivers and the clipping of seat belts for the four wheeler drivers. On many occasions I have observed the faithful men in Khakis tirelessly controlling the traffic flow - sometimes fingering the traffic lights to make way for a bottle neck to ease itself and sometimes barking orders to reckless drivers and trying to put them back on track to ensure that the show goes on on the roads. Barring rain or sun, these poor souls give their energy they have acquired just like you and me - may be harder than both of us - for the sake of a city that has forgotten civic sense, at least on the roads. Today, in a city that has apparently developed to the benefit a chosen few, the roads are a nightmare to drive. Day-by-day, the number and the depths of the pot holes are increasing. Accidents - mostly involving two-wheelers - are on the rise. As I ponder over the question that may have occurred to many of you too as to where this City is heading to with regard to civic sense in civil life, invariably a requirement to examine the role that a taxpayer expects his governors to play in meting out good governance to him in return to the tax he pays to the State, comes to the fore.

The state of affairs of today in the City of Kochi points the finger to the think tank of the Local governance agencies who are undoubtedly the nodal point and the primary link in the maintenance and development of Kochi. The primary responsibility of town planning, road traffic management, sewage treatment and regulation of civic discipline rests with them. This means a core group consisting of the Kochi Corporation, the Local headquarters of the Police, the local headquarters of the Transport Department and the local headquarters of the Public Works Department are the nodal work centres with the KSEB, BSNL, KWA, Private Telecom Companies, Institutions, Residents' Associations, Travellers' Associations and the like forming a sort of supporting network that assists in the proper execution of executive orders. The core group, I believe, is directly answerable and accountable to the public of the city of Kochi for the hapless state of roads in the city.

It is alarming to note that the men and women that sit at the very echelons of power in the city have failed to take note of the swelling numbers of vehicles in the city as well as the swelling population, whose needs naturally rise exponentially. It is apparent that no amount of thought has gone into the cultivated brains of these men and women in power who form the ruling roost of the city which also includes the well-read and highly educated high-ranking bureaucratic officers managing the show at their apportioned offices. None of them seems to have thought of plans for the long term as well as the short term to solve the problem of traffic overload. Few of the actions that could have been taken well before were to find out ways and means to widen the roads in the city; boldly acquire, if required, prime land at the cost of the State whose coffers are filled up with public money accountable only to the public; bulldoze properties of unyielding opposers of development regardless of the direct and indirect power they may be wielding. The officers and elected representatives in their respective offices have a direct responsibility to the public of the city in providing them with the freedom of movement, which fortunately until now has not been amended by any Court of Law of the Country nor has it been adversely affected by amendments in Constitution.

It is heart-rending to see men and women who have been appointed in higher offices - be they elected members of the public or be they appointed officers of the State - travelling by the same pot-holed roads in cosy chauffeur-driven cars financed and maintained by the taxpayer's money completely oblivious of the fact that each time they jump into a pot hole or screech their cars to a halt to avoid a potentially dangerous pitfall, they are failing the very public they feel they are serving. I have at many traffic intersections, when I've been flagged down to an unexpected halt by my brothers in Khakis to make way for a vehicle escorted around and flying the tricolour, wondered if these live objects of power realise even once that the public considers such people in their heart of hearts as a liability to the society rather than an Individual to be regarded with awe. In all probability each time their car jumps a pothole, he or she might be cursing the junior most PWD engineer or the unpaid worker who, technically owes direct responsibility for the state of the roads. I am forced to think - are these babus not human beings themselves? Once out of their office, are they not just like any other citizen of the country? Do they ever think that their bounden responsibility is not at clearing a heap of files each day and feeling satisfied at the end of the day that their red or green- inked remarks on the left hand side noting have been used effectively to sort out interpersonal rivalry and interdepartmental ego clashes? Do they ever try to sort out minor hiccups that might be causing a delay in executing emergency repairs to roads over a cup of tea between officers? Do they ever take time out of their daily official routine to walk down a road and see for themselves what is wrong and how the wrong thing is affecting a load of souls? Does a junior officer who is the man in the field given the opportunity to air his assessment of situations on ground? Is he given a chance to project a plan of action that could be executed on ground? Are his problems that he faces on ground adequately solved? Is such a person's comments given any cognizance? Has our governance system fallen to such abysmal depths that inter-departmental officer-to-officer dialogue over the table is completely non-existent? Or is it that such opportunities are only used to empty glasses of brandy and whisky down the oesophagus and discuss the next cozy posting that is available to be targeted? Is our system being eaten away by the very own blessings that economic reforms have brought in to make life better for everyone?

I leave the thoughts open for now. We shall continue this 'Debate' soon..

The Source Pad for the Crow

Having contemplated a method of airing my views on contemporary issues that affect day to day life, I hit upon this idea that was floated by one of my most trusted friends about this new thing called blogging. At first, it sounded weird to me - flogging, logging et al were familiar words learnt at school and practised in profession ; but this one was a bit too tough to understand. When it finally sunk into the grey cells with a certain rebellious face, it became clear that yes, this one can make quite a difference in the minds and lives of those geeks who now-a-days find it easier to get glued on to the new generation add-on essential that is the computer and its big nanny - the Internet. When days are passing by with each day reducing the number of heads that remain half covered in the mornings in the once-favourite cellulose product called the News paper, the Internet has come as a wise substitute for just about anything save for the natural and irreplaceable needs of the human being.

Life, no doubt is the biggest teacher. There are many things that they teach in school, some of it each one of us imbibe and employ at a later date to earn a living; some we keep in our hearts to make a wish and to dream about, some others we use to make a few of our dreams come true, but most of what is taught in school remains under wraps in some unknown corner of our brains, until it is activated by some passing thought or some act by someone whom we see or interact regularly with and then we get that peculiar voice that pops out of nowhere and tells you from inside - "Gosh! I've heard about it somewhere, sometime and it seems very familiar to me" or "I know this problem, have seen it before being solved" and so on. Sometimes these thoughts and prop-ups in the brain makes you think on certain issues - sometimes related to something you would have observed at home, office or when you were travelling or sometimes not related at all to anything that you would be doing on a day - to - day basis or would have observed anyway - and then you feel that you need to do something to get back your long forgotten faculties and act as a socially responsible civilized person. In the harrowing grind of our day-to-day lives, each one of us would, I'm sure, have come across many such instances as I have just described; and in almost all cases, each one of us would have decided - "H'mm, I must do something. Not now, but definitely at a later date; when I have enough time in my hands to think about it". The stream of thoughts would disappear softly as much as it appeared and and get buried in the chores of the day, little knowing that that time would never come when we would have the 'Enough Time' which we always wanted to finish off a million things we would by then have accumulated.

Much a similar thought had come to my mind many a time and more than once I shared it with my friends. It was then that I started thinking of letting my thoughts out on paper. I realised it hard that paperwork had to rest for the rest of my life as it turned out to be just impossible to pick up a pen and start writing. I envied my sister on this - she had (and still has) a flair for the metallic pin that would bring forth beautiful scripts on whichever surface she could move it on. The thoughts were shelved until now when I finally decided to take some time out for myself and let out my thoughts over contemporary issues that affect us. I felt that if I bottled up my thoughts and never let them out, there might come a day when I would regret having not done as much when I had my faculties in shape and I could do so. I wouldn't have forgiven myself that time, if it has to come. I also felt that it would be foolish to waste out my time by just thinking that I would do what I wanted and end up not doing it any day. Then came I and sat down in front of my PC, plugged into the Net and went straight down to catch hold of this interesting facility they've invented and put up for just the thing I was looking at. As I start up my pad I must confess I am a bit apprehensive : of whether I would be talking sense ? Would it matter at all to some one somewhere who might some day read what I might be keying in? Would I be technically and primarily correct in my views? I wouldn't know if such thoughts occur to all who indulge in blogging; but certainly it had occurred to me ever since I decided that I should go for it. Nonetheless, I am going ahead as a bold soldier - true to the traditions that I've been taught at the place I got trained : to do what I feel is correct and to talk honestly.

An immediate cause that I can relate to as to the triggering of thoughts that brought me to this place is the few remarks that came out in the popular daily : the Indian Express a few days ago in Kochi about the nasty problem the city is facing as regards the traffic on the streets. Having travelled quite a bit around the country and having observed the way various cities of our country handle such tricky issues, I thought I should share my observations on the subject. Having said so much, I must start off the debate - as I'm sure many would come back to me with their views on the subject - on the city's traffic blocks.