11 November, 2013

Nepal's zebra crossings: developed vs developing

The most shocking thing about the USA, where I went as a wide-eyed undergraduate at the age eighteen, happened to me on an empty road. A car slowed down as it saw me, and stopped. As I dithered by the pavement, it took me a few minutes to realize—“this car is stopping so I can pass.!”

I was stunned.

I was stunned because in Nepal cars do not stop for people. In fact, when they see people crossing the road on a zebra crossing, they put their pedal down on the accelerator and speed up so other pedestrians will be scared to cross. In Nepal, the automobile culture of bigger, faster and more expensive has rapidly caught up with the rest of the world, with truck-like SUVs piling into tiny lanes meant for pedestrians. But while the latest SUVs crowd our street, rules and regulations that govern driving in the rest of the world has not caught up.

Civility and civic sense is a set of rules that doesn’t come automatically to people, unless it is taught. In the USA, regulations like parking tickets, speed limits, fines, as well as confiscation of driving licenses and vehicles act as ways to control drivers. Unfortunately many aspects of civic sense is simply not known, far less enforced, in Nepal, leaving old people, children and disabled people to fend off zooming motorcycle riders with zero concern for civil society as best as they can, on their own.

I recently saw a traffic cop give an angry lecture to a safa tempo driver who had apparently crossed an invisible line. The driver was visibly upset--there was nothing to indicate he'd crossed a line, since in other days he'd have gone across the crossroads and onto the other side of Narayan Gopal Chowk without stopping. Why this traffic cop decided to go nuclear on this driver at this particular moment is not known.  What is clear is that there is a desperate need for clear, consistent and firm rules of traffic regulation in Nepal that is not dependent on the moods of volatile traffic cops who decide each day where the line of crossing is going to be. Perhaps when the rules are clear, drivers in Nepal would also follow them.

Rules, however, are one thing. But civility is another. And that unfortunately cannot be learnt in the same manner as traffic rules, with a book or from a driving institute. Nepal could make many rules and laws saying vehicles should slow down and let pedestrians pass in zebra crossings, and that vehicles must stop at a certain distance when traffic is flowing in the crossroads in front of  them. But until and unless there is a fundamental respect for the human beings crossing roads, those white lines will merely be lines to ignore and push through, as pedestrians scuttle between vehicles that refuse to give an inch of space to walkers trying to walk across a zebra crossing.

Zebra crossings, those mundane inventions of modern traffic, have now come to signal to me the difference between a developed world where the driving culture acts to illustrate societies that have fundamental respect for other members of society (regardless of their perceived social status), and a still-developing world with a "lets mow down the proletariat" attitude towards those who don't own vehicles. In the latter, where the ownership of vehicles signal power, and where power must be asserted by mowing down those lower on the hierarchy, the whole system of modern vehicle-ownership becomes a very troubling phenomena indeed.

Technological gizmos, including automobiles, are easy to buy--money flows freely in Third World countries, especially at the topmost levels. What's harder to learn are the values associated with the developed countries that made those cars. And those values perhaps are the missing ingredient between a country that's "developed" and one that's not.

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