Wednesday, 17 February 2016

ROADS, RECKLESS DRIVING, AND ACTS OF AGGRESSION



The alarming rate at which accidents are on the rise in Goa is an issue of major concern. While the number of victims in road accidents keeps on rising, repeated attempts to bring about policy decisions and laws seem to be destined to fail. This article is not a dissection of why these aforementioned measures fail. Rather, it will try to dwell on how we, as Goans, relate to each other whilst making use of roads. Think about it this way, why would the person behind you honk incessantly despite there being no place for you to give way and despite the fact that you are driving at a decent 50 kmph? Why is it that people in cars and on bikes rarely wait to allow pedestrians to cross the road? And why, when tables turn, does one indulge in the same behavior?

Goans with memories of having good roads and good traffic sense would today be quite rare. What would not be rare is the constant usage of the phrase “angar yeilo/yeta” to describe reckless driving. Interestingly, this is the exact same phrase that is used to describe physical aggression: “to mhojea angar yeilo”. So if one thinks about the two contexts in which this Konkani phrase is used, one can argue that driving on roads in Goa is an aggressive act. Thus, whilst on the road, we are either subjected to aggression or we inflict aggression upon someone else. These acts can be reckless driving wherein the vehicle driver endangers the life of others; in other circumstances, it can be loud and incessant honking, or using the full beam at night, or not recognizing the rights of other motorists and pedestrians to share the same space as you. And in the last instance, it can even be the use of verbal abuse and physically scuffling with others.

The next logical question to ask is why are roads sites of aggression in Goa? To answer this we would need to focus on power and privilege, as the architect and urban studies scholar Vishvesh Kandolkar does. Writing not so long ago, Kandolkar argued that one of the reasons is the privileges afforded to them by the Indian caste system that empowers ‘elites’ and/or high-end car owners to flout traffic laws as they do. To that we can also add the fact that as many are denied power and privilege in their social and political sphere, reckless driving can be a manifestation of this lack, enabling non-elites to momentarily feel a sense of power and privilege. As a result they assume themselves to be always in the right and above the law.

If we briefly focus on the history of who could afford cars and scooters in Goa, it would be apparent that privilege has a lot to do with why roads are sites of aggression. The wealthy and the landed class in Goa were the ones who could afford cars and scooters, back in the days when buses and bullock-carts were the more accessible means of transportation. I do not want to claim that only the wealthy and landed classes purchased cars in Goa, because others would as well. Many of the cars were purchased as a business investment, for providing transport facilities or taxi services. Generally, the one who invested would be driving the car and earning a living. However, cars purchased and used solely for the convenience and conveyance of the family members was a privilege that was only available to either those who owned land or those, due to employment in Gulf and on cruise liners, could afford cars from the ’80s. In other words, one could feel a certain entitlement – in the sense of owning the roads and driving on them.

With liberalization of the Indian economy and the availability of loans to the middle-class in the service sector, more and more Goans were able to acquire vehicles. This, in itself, is not a bad thing as more and more people could acquire prosperity. However, one cannot but help thinking if an anciently entrenched form of privilege along with a sense of entitlement is the only way through which we understand how to use roads. In other words, an ‘elite’ behavior and understanding that ‘I’ and solely ‘I’ am right – the other is not, is the only way we know how to behave on the roads and relate to each other. Ultimately, due to the virtue of owning a car or a scooter, ‘I’ do not recognize the right of others to share the same public space because ‘I’ think that ‘I’ am entitled (and above the law) and that everyone else should make way for me. Like in other public spaces such as parks, ‘we’ as a community have until now not been able to lay our collective claim on it. Only some of us can, while others resent it. There is always a friction which causes us to display aggressive behavior.

This is not to suggest that aggressive behavior is solely the cause of accidents on roads. Factors like sleep-deprivation and bad roads can also be major causes. However, the acts of aggression exhibited on Goan roads make the experience of moving from one place to another unpleasant and frustrating. This aggressive behavior on roads does not allow us to value human life, as it should be. While the efforts of the state, such as wider roads and more policing (which actually leads to harassing the citizenry) have not borne any results, checking our aggressive behavior could be a start at fixing the problem.

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 17 February, 2016)

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