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A parable on a minister, the media and a hot-air balloon

A man in a hot-air balloon over the city realises that he has lost his way. He, therefore, lowers the balloon, hails a man on the ground and asks: “ Can you tell me where I am '” The man looks up, nods and says: “ Yes, you are in the air, 30 ft above the ground and in a hot-air balloon.” Our man in the balloon is livid and says icily: “Well, you must be a minister in the Left Front government.” The man on the ground is startled and asks: “ Well, that is true; but how did you know '” The man replies: “That was simple, everything you told me in reply to my question is technically correct but is of no use to anyone.” It is now the turn of the man on the ground to retort, and he gravely adds: “Oh, you must be an editor, then.”

How on earth did he know '

“Simple. You do not know where you are or where you are going; you are exactly in the same position as you were before we met; but now it is all my fault,” the minister said.

The joke came to mind as the city was treated to a puerile debate last week, more in the media than in the Assembly, on the fastest metro city in the country. The redoubtable transport minister, Subhas Chakraborty, was reported to have claimed that Calcutta remained the fastest city in the country and was faster than all other cities in Asia, barring Seoul. Neither the expert nor the observer appeared amused, possibly because the minister made the claim in all seriousness in the state Assembly. The minister, ruled a maddened media, must get his head examined.

But then, the average vehicular speed in the city may not actually be much better or worse than the business districts in other major cities in the world. It is still possible to drive at 40 kph in several parts of the city and the gridlock that motorists experience and fret about is related largely to central Calcutta. The minister would also argue that the traffic snarls in the central part of the city are caused largely by the ongoing construction of flyovers, a necessary price that motorists must pay. Moreover, when one takes the speed on the EM Bypass, VIP Road, Southern and the Northern Avenues and so on, it is possible to arrive at an ‘average’ speed that is designed to startle motorists. The minister, of course, did not mention how the survey was conducted or when, during which specific hours and which particular roads and vehicles were studied. Without such data, the information made little or no sense, and the debate remained superficial.

What is far more significant, however, is the minister’s motive in citing the figures. He apparently felt that the figures reflected improved traffic management in the city. Be happy, there’s nothing to worry, he seemed to suggest. This is the attitude that should have made people see red, specially when in all major cities in the world, planners are busy grappling with the problem of road congestion, traffic snarls and vehicular speed.

Some cities have actually designated days when citizens are encouraged to leave their cars home; others have tried shifting office complexes to the fringes; the mayor of London tried to impose a hugely unpopular ‘congestion tax’ on vehicles getting into designated areas, while many European cities have been consciously prompting the use of bicycles, with at least one of them paying an incentive to those who use bicycles on business.

Many of these measures may not work in overcrowded Indian cities. But that is hardly a strong enough reason for the minister to be complacent. Faster and higher — the minister’s motto — may not quite be the ideal solutions to the city’s traffic ills. How far, then, is the dead end '

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