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..