India: A Nation of Super Powerful Honkers

Honk! Honk! Honk! I want to make a point. Honk! Honk! Honk! I want to make a point.

Annoyed?

Welcome to the roads of India, the world’s largest democracy.

I remember the shock — reverse culture shock — I got years ago when I first walked the roads of Kolkata, in eastern India, after my long stay in America. I had returned to live in my home in central Kolkata, a congested neighborhood. Whenever I walked the streets, clad in my Bermuda shorts and t-shirt, I would look back nervously to see whether some car was coming toward my derriere. Cars, motorcycles, and cycle-vans (with air horns) would almost touch my backside and shock the hell out of me with blaring horns.

I started to plug my ears with fingers at the approach of every car. Horns became a terror to me, alienating me in my own country. Honking came to stand for a singular word I would never use for anything else — cacophony.

I am not alone in my misery. A few years ago, back in Kolkata after spending 5 years in Mumbai, another metropolitan city, I saw a man on a bus with fingers stuck in his ears during a spell of frantic honking by the driver of the vehicle. And, for those returning to India after their self-imposed exiles in America or Britain, such honking causes equal grief, I recently learned from a publication called The Indians Abroad.

Honking in India is only the tip of the iceberg. It is, to my mind, a manifestation of traffic mayhem. Remember, though, that this is a country with the potential and aspiration to be an economic superpower. The larger question, therefore, is: Can India feel like a superpower, if indiscipline rules its roads? For such chaos and the resultant stress make the quality of life inconsistent with that status.

Stress and discomfort can be a part of driving in developed countries, too. Road rage is not uncommon in the United States, especially in some major cities, like Miami. Yet, the sense of lawlessness and noise of Indian roads is incomparable with the conduct of traffic in those countries. Friends and relatives who have been to Britain and Australia confirm that they haven’t seen such undisciplined and honk-happy drivers there.

Visitors from the United States and Britain have told me the traffic in India is “unlike anywhere else in the world.” They want to be polite. A thorough British gentleman, a former colleague, said at a farewell event before leaving Mumbai: “I will not miss some things; one of these is the traffic in India.”

The chaos — along with other factors — does take a heavy toll. Officially, over 137,000 people were killed in road accidents in 2013, the highest number globally, according to India’s National Crime Records Bureau, Ministry of Road Transport & Highways. No one knows what exactly the reasons are, but experts agree the primary cause is unsafe practices, chief among them being irresponsible driving.

Why are Indian drivers so? Can one gauge a nation’s driving behavior by its levels of corruption? Can India fix its traffic system?

These are big questions. I don’t seek to answer them. They are for the sharpest minds of India. Many of them straddle two Indias: India as an emerging economy and India as a political challenge. One the one hand, India has been heralded as a software technology purveyor to the developed world and as an economy that rivals China, Russia, and Brazil. And yet India lives on a low rung of the governance ladder.

When will its leaders focus on the issue of traffic? One of India’s enduring road symbols is “Horn OK Please,” a sign common on the back of trucks and buses. Can India erase this problem?

There have been some half-hearted efforts to curb the horn menace, one from an NGO in Delhi. But these haven’t made much dent. According to the existing law, motorists are barred from installing horns emitting over 80–85 decibel. However, activists have found honking levels up to 100 decibel. The fine for excessive honking? About $2.

Meanwhile, car sales rage on. Global car makers have learned that it is imperative to install a unique horn for consumers in India. Audi and Volkswagen fit their Indian vehicles with stronger, longer-life horns.

Will India’s drivers keep the nation from being one of the world’s most notable nations? Superpowers must have more orderly traffic; it means a higher quality of life, a hallmark of advanced nations.

Well, as for me, I now make my home in Kolkata, amid the cacophony of horns. Let’s hope. A couple of years ago, The Wall Street Journal ran a story as its distinguished A-hed feature on Page 1: “Quiet? Seriously? India’s Quixotic Campaign to Stop Honking.”

Honk! Honk! Honk! That’s it. I must park my car now.

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