The road safety week has proved how unsafe Calcutta’s roads are. The Telegraph carried pictures three days ago which revealed that those who are responsible for making the roads safe for traffic and pedestrians are often violators of basic rules and laws. It would be facile, of course, to blame only the police for the deplorable state of affairs on Calcutta’s roads. The police force, like political parties, cannot be isolated from society. On the contrary, the police force and political parties are often reflections of society. Most of Calcutta’s citizens — pedestrians, drivers, users of public transport — have scant respect for rules and regulations. The tragic accident on the Park Street-Chowringhee crossing on Wednesday was caused by a minibus trying to overtake from the wrong side. This is a common occurrence when minibuses compete with one another to pick up passengers and therefore drive recklessly and flout rules. Taxis crawl and stop wherever they want to in their quest for passengers. Private bus drivers behave as if road rules are non-existent. Lane driving and the use of proper signals for overtaking, turning or stopping are foreign to most drivers in the city. There is also disregard for traffic lights, especially when there is no policeman in sight. In sum, there is a general nonchalance, if not contempt, for road rules and safety norms in Calcutta.
This nonchalance is rooted in the indifference of the police towards offenders. They are hesitant to take action against minibus and private bus drivers because the latter enjoy political patronage. These drivers protest against punishments by going on strike and thus holding the city’s transport system to ransom. Often, of course, the absence of punishment is related to the venality of the policemen on duty. But even when penalties are actually imposed, they are far too light and lenient. There is no reason why policemen should not be given greater punitive powers against those who violate traffic rules. Of course, before such powers are bestowed, it has to be ensured that the police do not abuse the powers given to them and that gamekeepers do not turn poachers. It needs to be underlined in this context that government vehicles are among the biggest breakers of road rules. There is the notion, difficult to dislodge, that a flashing red light on top of a car or a sticker saying “on government duty” puts the drivers of those cars above the law.
The issue of road safety cannot be separated from the condition of the pavements and the condition of the roads. Both are in appalling condition. Roads, because of the absence of proper maintenance and indiscriminate digging; and the pavements, because they have been hijacked by hawkers. In any civilized city, the pavements are for the use of pedestrians. But in Calcutta, most pedestrians have to walk on the road because the hawkers ply their trade on the sidewalk. There is no awareness among the people that the hawkers have appropriated a space that is not theirs. This ties in with the general disregard for rules and social norms which is manifest in Calcutta. This makes for an unsafe city, even occasionally an uncivilized one.