Another day....another cause...another rally! It is a sad and extremely frustrating state of affairs that the residents of the Capital are used to by now. The list of reasons for protests reads like a list of woes so diverse and sometimes so trivial, that even Pearly Gates would refuse to acknowledge it, far less the "Samara Gate" of the Secretariat! And the entire focus of all this activity is along the M.G. Road of the city, which is also the arterial road of the urban area. The result? Clogged roads, traffic jams and frayed tempers aside, the disruption often results in missed appointments and trains/flights, and even endangers the lives of patients being rushed to hospital.
On a primal level, the question is always WHY Us?! The answer given is that Trivandrum is the Capital of Kerala. Correct, but does that mean the lives of one and a half million city residents is unimportant? The supporters of disrupting city life claim that all capitals have to put up with this, after all don't they get the prestige in return? Well, prestige doesn't count for much today, when time is money. And most capitals also get preference with respect to Government investment and policy. Trivandrum has to fight for the scraps that GoK does invest in, as hard as or more often, harder than the other cities in the State. As the State Government swings from left to right over and over, the focus of the Governments also switch from North to Central Kerala and back. Despite hogging the hospitality of the city and owing a lot of their support to the region, most politicians have nothing more than lip service to offer the city where they lounge in plush homes and zip around on the best roads in the State. So, if we weigh up the benefits and the costs of being a capital, the needle says it's a bad deal. To seal that measure, Trivandrum is the only State Capital which does not have a High Court or a HC Bench, and one should understand that the vast majority of cases pending in the HC are related to the Government and require armies of officials to travel to Cochin frequently at the tax payer's expense. But, let's leave the unfashionable parochial angle aside. That's a running argument and one in which I am necessarily biased in favour of one side.
Why is it necessary to throw life out of gear to prove a point?
Let me confess something - in my days as a student activist with a very pronounced left leaning, I was part of and have organised quite a few marches along M.G.Road. So I am not quite the disinterested, neutral party standing by the road side cursing the rallyists. But this also gives me a view from the other side, from within the ranks of marches and from the front row.
The aim behind a protest march or any march is manifold. The march is designed to bring issues to the notice of the authorities and the public. It is also aimed to display the strength of an organisation or a cause. Larger the rally, stronger the cause. It may also aim to send a physical jolt to the Government through blockades and et al. So why is this mayhem being allowed? The follow-up question of who would stop it being set aside for the moment, the answer is that conducting rallies and meetings is considered part of the constitutionally guaranteed Freedom of Expression.
However, there is a saying older than that sacred document, which goes "Your right to swing your arm ends before the next man's face." So should the Freedom to Express your views and register your grievances. That freedom should not infringe on anybody's right to lead a normal life. Not that I am saying there should be no meetings or marches. Living in a country which won its independence through a bitter half-century of such political activity, it would be hypocrisy to say any such thing. Many of our rights have been won through such actions. But, having seen both sides of the issue, I believe that that an amicable solution can be found.
Not many of us know that there are laws governing the conduct of marches and meetings in our city, as in any other place. Being a capital city does not mean that the law allows netas to run riot. According to the rule book, advance notification has to be given to the police, marches may occupy no more than one lane (two abreast) and adequate provision must be provided for traffic to cross the route of the march, and so on. While I can defend my own actions of yesteryears by saying that every effort was made to observe the rules, in most cases the rules are observed more in the breach.
If these rules are obeyed, traffic disruption will be minimised especially since Trivandrum's main roads are being widened to 6-lanes. One way of enforcing the rules is by laying the responsibility on the shoulders of the organisers, where it belongs, and not on the policeman. A network of traffic surveillance cameras will help to identify and document violations. The City Police have had a city-wide camera system on the drawing boards, it has been on paper for a long while now but hopefully should get operationalised soon. March/meeting organisers can be penalised for violations. Of course, finding the political will to enforce the same could be like finding an ice cube in hell. After all jathas, hartals and bandhs are elements which cross partylines regularly.
The next thing one wonders is why the entire world seems to descend upon us for any old reason. I mean, if a protest needs to be registered, it can be done with 5,000 people as much as with 10,000. But the former would create exponentially less traffic hassles. But everything is a numbers game these days and creating the biggest nuisance....ahem...show of strength is the need of the hour. After all, one union can't allow its rival to have even one more man trucked into town. One way of controlling this is to levy a charge on organisers for exceeding a maximum number of attendees and using the money collected for developing infrastructure or for charity. After all, we pay tolls to use public infrastructure. So why shouldn't someone not pay up for disrupting our lives on a regular and systematic basis? The same camera system mentioned earlier can help keep track of the size of the crowd. If such systems can accurately estimate attendance at an EPL football match, a march of the local I-am-lazy-so-I-will-march brigade shouldn't be much of issue. Considering the bright livery worn by many marches, things should be easier still, lol!
There are of course a few ideas, bordering on the fringe. The fringe of lunacy..errr...imagination. One could have an extra lane built only for marches on all main roads, sort of like the "Emergency Vehicles Only" lane seen on many western highways. And this lane would have automatic barricades to prevent encroachment of traffic lanes. Perhaps this "Samara" lane could be elevated, so that protests are literally over the head of us lesser mortals. Or we could have dummy roads and a parade ground outside the city for the demonstrators and the proceedings could be live-telecast on a special channel, so that interested parties may view and be impressed by the amount of idle time and energy possessed by the local populace. Finally, we can shift all Government offices to some far-off wasteland or even better, to an island far offshore. Then, of course, there is always the water cannon-and-stun grenade option.....oops...did I say that?
Ludicrous one may say. The unfortunate truth is that the crackpot suggestions have as much chance of being implemented as the logical ones. One immediate recourse would be to disseminate information about traffic conditions to all road users. This could be done through radio stations, for example. This practice is already prevalent in many major Indian cities with private FM stations being the media of choice. With stations like "93.5 FM" launching in the city in the next few weeks, this is one thing which can be implemented quickly with the co-operation of the men in white-and-khaki. The next step would be to go mobile, literally! Bangalore has recently launched a mobile phone based traffic advisory system called the Bangalore Traffic Information System (Check it out here). This issues alerts on mobile phones warning users of traffic jams and advising them on the best detours. With one of India's leading mobile application development firms - Torque - based at Technopark, I hope such a system will be available to us soon.
With high-tech help like this, expanded roads and the willingness to obey and enforce the rule of law, hopefully the only city-stopping activity would be the annual Onam paegentry! Well, it's going to take quite a while before this wishful thinking is turned into reality. Till then, yours truely is evaluating the option of grabbing a placard and marching against marches! A protest against protest....mmmmm....an interesting idea. And I don't think it would cause any extra trouble, what is one more drop or less in an ocean?!