Driving in Delhi: chaos of cars, carts, and cows

If you think India (honk honk) seems a place of gentle, tolerant masses (honk) or benign gurus (honk honk honk) urging the world to slow down - you've never driven in New Delhi.

Rush hour here can turn a crusty Manhattan cabby to jello. Rules? There aren't many, save whatever it is Charles Darwin was talking about.

Passing is done on both sides, at any time, preferably often. Horns, not brakes, are the driver's main tool.

For many reasons, partly a new glut of personal autos that add to the crazy confluence of cow, car, and cyclist - traffic here has worsened in the '90s, Delhiites say.

Recently the Delhi high court took a class-action suit that may help. The issue is the rapid proliferation of something called VVIP vehicles.

Yes, VVIP does stand for "very very important person" - an expanding category in the capital of India, where very important people are anxious to become very very.

VVIP cars warrant blue or red sirens and flashing lights. In rush hour these vehicles blast through dense traffic like a shark through a school of guppies, scattering masses of very very common drivers, and leaving a wake of oaths.

For a time, VVIP cars were issued for security reasons. But now they symbolize status. "Where in the world [are officials] given such treatment?" asked Chief Justice S.N. Variava, in accepting the case Aug. 5. "Even a subdivisional magistrate now moves around with a siren and red bulb."

Yet given the size of Delhi's traffic problem, the court has limited clout. During rush hour, for example, private city buses compete each block for passengers, and careen down wide boulevards to get to the next stop first. The buses are one reason a newly moneyed middle class has quit riding them and bought personal cars.

So "driven" is traffic that officials last year put up stoplights that say, "Relax."

"I kiss the ground when I get back to the hotel," an Australian visitor confides.

One problem is Delhi's road patterns. Designed by the British in the 1920s, the roads are a series of concentric circles tied together by countless traffic rotaries. Nearly every type of rolling vehicle invented competes for the inside lane of this crowded, circular no man's land of travel - trucks, ox carts, motor scooters, bicycles, buses, rickshaws, 14 types of cars, and the recently popular sport utility vehicles.

In this moving sea, safety margins are micro-meters wide and split seconds long. But that is understood. A three-wheeled delivery bike with a refrigerator on the back, like an ant carrying a leaf, swerves inches in front of a BMW; a bicycling tea wallah balancing a lacework of several hundred used ceramic teacups competes for space with a homemade chopper that looks stolen from the set of Easy Rider. A family of five on a small motor scooter is not unusual.

A Western highway department would likely shut the place down. With 12 million people and 3 million vehicles, the Department of Surface Transportation reports, Delhi streets are far over capacity.

Policing efforts are under way. Agreeing their traffic is the "most chaotic" in India, Delhi officials this month proclaimed "zero tolerance zones" - streets where traffic violations may result in fines, not warnings.

Delhiites roll their eyes.

Many drivers have no licenses, are not literate, and don't know the traffic laws. Drivers of some 300,000 of 400,000 rickshaw drivers - the tiny, buzzing three-wheelers that swarm on Delhi streets - aren't licensed. An Indian Supreme Court mandate on rules for driving schools has disintegrated.

The class-action suit over VVIP cars is being brought by a group of academics and lawyers. One, Srikant Gupta, an economics professor at Delhi University, was arrested after he failed to yield to a VVIP, and his car was impounded. "I spend 10 years studying in the States, and I don't want to come home and be treated like a second-class citizen," says Dr. Gupta.

Their suit seeks clarification over who qualifies for sirens and lights, and whether ordinary vehicles must yield to them.

VVIP status began after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. For a time, entire streets of Delhi would close when her son, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, drove to and fro in the jeep given to him by the king of Jordan.

But in the late '90s, sirens and lights became widespread. Being only "very important" was no longer good enough. So the category has sprawled from two dozen VVIPs to about 1,500 today. Cabinet ministers, department heads, deputies, and a thick echelon of city and state officials all qualify for the gleaming white, official-issue Indian Ambassador, a large boat-like car, heavy and underpowered, with an engine the size of a breadbox.

So as you turn into a Delhi rotary and are cut off by a blaring ambassador, don't crane your neck - it's probably just the deputy assistant tax collector. Or his spouse.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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