Monday, February 21, 2011

India, driving and order

I really like India. Our schedule left us time to sightsee in Delhi on Saturday afternoon, and in Pune on Sunday morning. In Delhi we saw the Lotus Temple, the Qutab Minar and the India Gate. In Pune we went for a long drive to a monument and found the road to get there was shut. But we spent a lot of time driving, and that was really fun. The first thing that strikes the English ear is that they use their horns a lot. The second thing is that they need to because lane discipline is an alien concept here. To the English sensitivity the whole thing seems to be entirely chaotic, and possibly quite intimidating, but after looking for a bit longer, I realised that it is very definitely order, just not as we know it.

I've only experienced urban driving in India so I don't know what it's like on the motorways. But urban driving in India is alert, purposeful and highly collaborative. They are better drivers than most UK drivers. Not just because they have to be; I think there's an element of choice about it too. First of all, to describe it.

They drive very close together, both side to side and front and back, much closer than would be tolerated in England. If there is a gap they go into it, regardless of how narrow it is or whether it is between lanes. They drive on the wrong side of the road, even when traffic is coming directly towards them; by the time it gets there they have melted back on to the right side of the road. If they want to pull out into the traffic, either from the roadside, or a minor road, they do. The oncoming traffic flows around them. They hoot for information, not out of vexation. They hoot to let people know they are there. Auto rickshaws and trucks often have painted on their back “Please hoot”. I've never yet heard someone hoot in anger, despite all the manoeuvring and proximity. In Britain we use our horns to tell people they have annoyed us, though my British readers might be interested to know that the official meaning of a horn sounding, as in the Highway Code, is “I am here”, exactly as they use it in India. That was the first thing I really noticed, that the sounding of horns was not an argument as it would be in the UK, but more like a constant conversation. When they drive into a space other people may hoot at them, but it's to let them know that they are very close. They are often driving at 30 mph about 3 inches apart, they are constantly manoeuvring to avoid things ahead of them, and things behind are constantly manoeuvring to avoid them.

So they have to be alert to what is going on around them all the time, they have to anticipate things happening from any direction, they have to be purposeful to make progress, and they have to drive with restraint in order to let all the other drivers around them make progress as well. And they have to be capable of driving inches apart from everything else on the road. They do so very successfully, and I don't think many British drivers would do nearly so well.

Possibly one of the reasons is the different forms of transport. There are cars buses and lorries as in England, there are more motorbikes and scooters, and more bicycles. And of course pedestrians. There are also bicycle rickshaws usually pulling large and heavy loads very slowly, and auto rickshaws, which are little more than 3 wheel scooters. So there's a combination of small and slow vehicles for everyone to negotiate.

The second reason is that very few people are concerned to get to their destination as quickly as possible. In the UK we tend to regard everyone else on the road as an encumbrance. In India they seem to recognise that everybody is trying to get somewhere, and they aren't the most important person on the road. There may be a cultural element in there somewhere, something to do with British culture being very individualistic, whereas Indians are by and large more attuned to collective responsibilities. Although we don't think of it as such, road driving is a highly collaborative activity. Watching traffic at a busy roundabout, say, you can see how drivers co-operate with each other to get everybody through in an apparently random but reasonably fair way. It may also be noticeable that the driver who tries to jump the queue, of whom we have many in the UK, slows a lot of other people down. Individualism can actually prevent people getting what they want in the most effective and efficient way. In a way, seeing how others drive is most influential as a way of reflecting back on how we drive.

The final factor, I think, is about awareness. I have no idea about conscious awareness in Indian drivers. It is certainly high in practice as the lack of accidents in Indian driving. In UK drivers it is lamentable for the most part. Whatever we're taught in driving lessons we forget as soon as we have passed the test; I have met very few British drivers who feel any need to actually concentrate on their driving when they are driving. I get the impression many think that would be a waste of time they could much better use chatting to their passenger, talking on their mobile, whether legal or not, listening to the radio or just day dreaming.

But to return to my original theme, that of order, I see in the Indian situation something that in British eyes would be simply chaos, but which is in fact very well ordered behaviour by thousands of people all in a very small space. It is, in fact, ordering of the highest quality, just different to the we do it in Britain. That in itself raises different questions about how we perceive order. There are very clear and powerful cultural influences on what counts as ordered and as disordered in different situations.

1 comment:

MaYanK PanDeY said...

Great post .. nice to know your views about India..
I am from India, would like to catch up with you sometime, and discuss more plans. How may i get in touch with you ???