Will solve Perreira, what about pavements?
The car suddenly swerved to the right at the precise moment. If it hadn’t, my wheels would have licked a little speed-breaker which had suddenly appeared by the footpath. This tiny rock before my wheels, covered in human flesh, looked mysteriously like a child’s foot. It was a child’s foot. From both my windows I could see the green island of affluence, the Chembur Golf Club. Cutting through the course was a fine, fast lane that several people considered their living room, kitchen and sundaas at sundown.
Legitimacy of such homes has been contested in Indian courts for decades. No one can conclusively decide whether building a hut as and where you please constitutes, after all, the right to livelihood. Something the constitution fundamentally guarantees its citizens.
But for that quick jerk, I could have taken a life, and charged, as per law, with culpable (blameworthy) homicide (human killing). I was both lucky and sober. Though I immediately learnt, you’d neither be drunk nor rash to be the negligent driver possessed by gods of death on such streets. This was my fifth day of Mumbai’s driving lessons. I haven’t returned since.
One inebriated, hideous bloodsucker Alistair Perreira mowed down people while they were sleeping in their homes. He had rammed into a pavement on the night of November 12, 2006. In most modern cities, he would have damaged a concrete footpath or himself: gone to the police station, or to the hospital. But the pavement was wide enough to be a bedroom for 15. Seven of those people got killed. So should their murderer, but of course.
Perreira belonged to a rich family. This demographic fact reaps rich dividends, when spinning a story of Royal India running over hopes and aspirations of the Real one. The metaphor rings true. The conflict is easy to establish. The boy was 23, owned a Toyota Corolla, lived in the posh Carter Road, was driving drunk, returning from a party where he must have also splurged his papa’s money. The victims were poor labourers. Moralists must bay for this blue blood, caught red-handed, in the dead of the night. The city stood rightly outraged. Parreira got bail. Television stations went nuts. For the first time in the history of drunk driving in India, the Supreme Court booked him under the dreaded Section 304-II (“Dafa 304”), carrying a maximum sentence of 10 years. Everyone was satisfied.
None wronged the squatters’ rights. They were already dead, that would’ve been insensitive. Some others would have replaced those dead labourers on the same dangerous streets. Should anyone be sleeping there in the first place? That would be a politically incorrect question to ask. Nobody did. The issue with illegitimate villages springing up in the middle of supposedly modern cities, floating under flyovers, expanding into pavements, kissing the dividers, is that we’re still on cars, haven’t gone back to the bullock-cart yet. We must.
Slums, potholes, choked streets, city’s homeless, are civic concerns. Building shelters cost a lot of public money. Managing traffic is the police’s problem. All these issues, as it turns out, are unrelated, or so it seems. Somebody’s gotta be hurtin’ though. The earth must shake when the mighty fall. The cops, in an unabashed publicity stunt, right after the Perreira case in 2006, started putting up huge electronic boards across the city to display numbers of their glowing achievement. Scorecards started shimmering from one fine morning. “825 drunk drivers have been jailed; 790 licenses of drunk drivers have been suspended,” they said on the first week when you drove past prominent traffic junctions. Those numbers grew every day. It made the police look like they truly cared. Deterrence against drunkards behind wheels was in place.
The grand total of 825 read well, but didn’t really suggest any difference between “having consumed alcohol”, “being under influence”, or “intoxicated”. The three are not the same, but such subtleties are lost on all statistics. Subtlety isn’t one of those things the soldiers on streets are known for either. They make even less distinction between offenders if you make it inside the police lock-up. I have, and this is where democracy works at its best: the rapist is as good as the boy who got into a fight with his rickshaw guy.
Of all Indian metropolitan cities, it’s still the easiest in Mumbai to implement a rigorous, West-like zero-tolerance on ‘driving under influence’. Delhi, so far as my eyes go, has no cabs. Kolkata, evidently, has no roads. And Chennai, from what I could observe, has no drunks. Also, it helps the police to swiftly swell-up statistical figures when the said offenders are civil, white-collared fun-timers, the sorts you see pulled over most. Hardened criminals are harder to find, scare, jail and show-off. Those cases take ages to solve, if at all. Post-Perreiras are easy meat.
Until recently, the drill after the breath-analyzer test in Bandra, where Parreira was from, meant going to a sleepy resident doctor at a local hospital who examined your eyes with a torch and certified you “level 3 inebriated” (highest in the hierarchy of drunken states) over half a glass of beer. This has happened to me. Not much could have changed since. Neither did the numbers 825 or 790 distinguish between a ‘first-time’ and a ‘repeat’ offender. The two can’t be the same. All were jailed. So were three people for “over-speeding”, “cutting lanes” and carrying iron rods on top of their car.
Straight to the dreaded prison: never mind a warning, fine, or cab back home. If such simplicity be the suitable deterrence principle for a civilisation, there would be no need to upgrade ourselves from medieval laws. Those served the purposes just fine.
Don’t get me wrong still. We don’t trust people with our least precious stuff. There is no argument to entrust your life with someone, who’s seeing in twos and threes, as we speak. They should not be driving. Period.
Rules mean well. They always do. It’s the overnight targeting of law, which precludes warnings or worthy alternatives that should rattle up regular citizens almost everywhere. No one got rattled up in Mumbai. Supposed drunks were jailed. They deserved it, everyone said, credulously enough. Public euphoria over rising numbers of those severely punished for drunk driving began to unsettle me a bit.
What about the sober driver, nobody asked. Who needs a few Vodkas to mow down people when that bull, who’s charging towards you at top speed on a one-way street, honking and swinging at the same time, doesn’t drink. But he can’t drive either. There aren’t too many Indians I’ve met all my life – friends, acquaintances, relatives, distant cousins, mamajis, chachijis – who have passed a driving test and earned their license to kill. They’ve never taken a test. The plastic was couriered to them directly. I know no teetotaler who hasn’t paid off a cop, having broken a traffic rule either. Honking vehicles remains the background score of urban India.
The auto-rickshaw dude, half his bum on the driver’s seat, one hand on the handle bar, the other hand wherever else, snakes himself between a car and a bus that a baby would find hard to crawl past. Another one follows him. You avoid the masses walking on the same road, somehow steering clear of the cycle that’s also racing you down; finally take a safe turn into a building and reach the place you wanted to, which isn’t heaven or hell. My driver needs a break. He lights up and then stubs his cigarette on the road.
Two newly appointed “Clean Up Marshalls” from Mumbai’s municipal commission, holding a bundle of important receipts, pull him up; demand a fine for dirtying the street that’s already full of gunk. Clean Up Marshall’s a great move, I think. Where should he have stubbed the cigarette? I ask them. They look around; tell me, “I don’t know.” I pay the penalty. They leave. It’s so much harder to build trashcans.