Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Luxury of Choice

A worse start to the monsoons I hadn’t seen in my nearly ten years in the city. It had rained heavily every day for consecutive seven days, and it had been just my luck that I had to get out every single one of those days. I’d got used to hailing a dozen autos before one would agree to go where I wanted to, so was pleasantly surprised when the first auto I asked agreed to ferry me home.

I would have liked to take off my dripping raincoat, but decided to keep it on – at least it offered some protection against the treacherous breeze. A couple of minutes after I got onto the auto, it started raining, and the driver had to pull down the tarpaulin sheets was the only protection against the shower. Ensconced in my raincoat, I could enjoy the fine mist that made it way around the waterproof sheet and hit my face.

But what of the auto driver? All he had on was his normal uniform, which was collecting its fair share of the rainwater. Unlike me, he did not have the luxury of soon being able to get out of his wet clothes, and downing a mug of some warm beverage. How had he survived seven days of continuous rain? And how was he going to last out the rest of the monsoon?

As it so often did these days, my mind turned to whether or not the man would have chosen the same profession had he had the luxury of choice. If he had been better educated, if he had the initial start-up money to do something else, would he still have chosen to become an auto driver? At the best of times, it was a difficult job –pollution, traffic jams, irate customers – during the monsoons, could there be too many jobs that were worse than this one?

As if reading my thoughts, he spoke up – “Madam, the traffic situation in the city is really bad. Look at the number of cars on the road – it is five times what it must have been when I first came to the city. They have built a few flyovers, but what is the use – we need double the amount of road we have.”

I nodded ascent – “Yes, something drastic has to be done, and done soon. I am not sure how long the city can continue to function the way it now is.” We were on JP Road when I said this. Half the road had been blocked off for the proposed Metro Project. I wondered at the sheer stupidity of the timing of the project – it was scheduled to take 15 months to complete. Would it not have made more sense to start immediately after the monsoons so the road would be taken up only for one monsoon – would a delay of three months have really made such a difference?

Seeing me look at the corrugated sheets marking the boundary of the construction work for the Metro, he continued – “Look at that Project. Someone must have made a lot of money to allow the project to take off. What a waste of money it is. Two thousand crores, the project is costing, and how many people will one train seat – less than two hundred. What is the point of it at all – they may as well have spent the money constructing an elevated road along the same route, with entries and exits on SV Road, the Western Expressway, Powai….”

It was incredible – the man had the whole thing perfectly worked out. He didn’t need any traffic studies or dynamic programming to tell him exactly where the bottlenecks were, and to figure out how to work around them. Had his plan been implemented, traffic would have flowed much more smoothly, at least for the few years it took for the vehicle population to catch up with the increased road network.

I agreed totally with this man’s plan; had often toyed with similar solutions, but not on the scale that he was talking about. But I had to play Devil’s Advocate – “But a road would mean more vehicles using that road. Will it not be better to have people use mass transport?” He was a driver of an auto, but surely even he would realize that the solution to Mumbai’s traffic problem was better mass transportation facilities?

“Madam, what are you saying?”, he responded at once. “Do you think this Metro is going to reduce the number of people using autos? More people are going to take autos to get to the Metro station, and where is the place for an auto stand here? I am telling you Madam, traffic in this area is going to get much worse after this project takes off.”

I had to bow to this guy – he had more foresight than any of the highly paid consultants brought in to solve Mumbai’s traffic woes.

Access to capital had allowed him to purchase his own auto, but what a valuable resource he could have been had education be thrust on him. Maybe economic independence would enable him to educate his children, and maybe they would have inherited their father’s brains.

There must be many more like him, and maybe, just maybe, the next generation would be allowed to grow to their full potential.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails