The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The streets of Calcutta have managed to frighten the chief minister. The hazards in being driven from home to work and back home every day have suddenly made him aware of what it takes to be moving about in the city, cavalcade or no cavalcade. He has convened a meeting to lay down a few basic rules of behaviour for the police, drivers, pedestrians and other vehicle-owners. These rules sound simple and direct. The tone of the meeting seems to suggest concern, resolve and determined harshness towards offenders. But Calcuttans who brave and suffer the streets every day will remain unimpressed.

Rash drivers and jaywalkers are going to be fined more stringently, auto- and cycle-rickshaws are also going to be dealt with strictly. This is all very well. But there are several problems. If the fines already in existence against these offenders have not been enforced so far, then why should doubling these fines suddenly make them more easily enforceable' The problem here is with the enforcers rather than the offenders. Second, without the proper infrastructure for civilized behaviour on the streets or the pavements, pedestrians cannot be expected to do the impossible. If there are no proper zebra-crossings, if the footpaths are full of unauthorized structures and hawkers brazenly patronized by every political party, then fining pedestrians for not sticking to spaces from where they have been systematically edged out is unconscionable. Public buses, cycle- and auto-rickshaws proliferating uncontrollably in the city are also cherished vote-banks. As a result of this, they enjoy a sort of illicit empowerment which counteracts any attempt to either curb their numbers, or to tame their wild ways. The chief minister is surely aware that he is looking at not only the most profound lawlessness, but also at an almost complete absence or dilapidation of every kind of traffic-related infrastructure in the city. The police, municipal authorities, and most citizens using the streets on foot or in their vehicles are complicit in this rule of chaos. Occasionally taking fright and then making a few token punitive noises are simply not enough to deal with the streets of Calcutta.

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