Print Edition - 2014-10-19  |  Free the Words

The mood reflector

  • As we renew our roads and cities, we should remember that automobiles represent the direction we want to grow in
- Abhi Subedi
The mood reflector

Oct 18, 2014-

I feel numb with the frequent news of road accidents these days. Some accidents surpass all limits of common comprehension of how a road accident happens. Accidents are occurring on the rough tracks of the hills as well as in the middle of the expanded roads in cities. When you see reports of terrible accidents happening, sometimes daily and sometimes at intervals, you begin to wonder—what has gone wrong in the state of Nepal?

One explanation is that the conditions of the vehicles do not meet any normal standard of safe driving. That is the most obvious and most awful part of driving in Nepal. Vehicles that should have been discarded long ago are not only plying the streets, but are also holding their positions as the sole controllers of civilians’ mobility. The owners of these aged machines, who have entirely monopolised automobile power, leaving no room for new vehicles to operate, have powerful connections. The engines might be old but their power of political connections remains fresh and sometimes dangerous. For this very reason, they rule the streets. These ramshackle, age-old automobiles carry a legacy of corruption, naivety, bad management, and, most importantly, a culture of obscurantism that prevents anybody from accomplishing anything good.

Too much inertia

These old, non-functional vehicles staying in operation often have brake failures. They put passengers on roofs after cramming people inside to the brim and leave others hanging. In this condition, drivers speed down rough, unattended roads with potholes and collapsing road bridges, and meet accidents. Many of those travelling precariously die, and others become injured seriously. Shockingly, such tragedies occur when people set out on a journey with hopes of reunion with families to forget woes suffered round the year in difficult working conditions here and abroad. That people tend to travel somewhat freely during festival times is a very natural process. But meeting with accidents because of the lack of inspection of obsolete vehicles is bizarrely shocking.

Such accidents have increased alarmingly every year. The question is—what is wrong with the system? Why is it nobody’s responsibility to intervene, throw old vehicles out of the streets, nab those thugs who prevent new vehicles from coming into operation, and expose their links with political goons whoever and however strong they might be? One midsummer day, Nepal’s frail prime minister, Sushil Koirala, emerged out of the Baneshwor Constituent Assembly pandemonium and announced, “Too much is too much. I will look into this matter,” implying that no such monopoly of semi-dilapidated engines will be tolerated.

A poor vehicular system is part of that malaise or inertia that has prevented the country from smoothly operating a flag carrier, the national airline. What is wrong in that is also part of what is wrong in the management of traffic and vehicular systems in the country. Scenes of goat sacrifice at the tarmac of the Tribhuvan International Airport to make a Boeing 757 flight smooth can be looked up even today.

But the story is even more complex. Vehicles not only link cities, they also make up cities. In other words, automobiles represent the moods of cities for growth. That is why, how you build the city streets is a subject of interest. Narrow Kathmandu roads once choked the flow of vehicles. Now, the expanded streets in posh areas are parking spaces. We can see that pattern outside Kathmandu as well.

A sense of equality

One other point should be mentioned here. The co-existence of all forms of vehicles is a unique character of South Asian cities. Calcutta is a case in point. Hardly a decade ago, I got on a man-pulled rickshaw and after reaching the destination, asked the man to allow me to pose for a photograph with him. He became angry. I learned a great lesson about the relationship between a vehicle and the dignity of a man in this region that day.

Such coexistence deeply governs the dynamics of how we use vehicles, but the overwhelming and ostentatious use of newly manufactured vehicles and the outdated ones side-by-side as the sole means of public transportation in and out of the cities and towns, speaks volumes about the psyche of urban structures and policies. To see horse-drawn serviceable vehicles in Indian cities and in decorative modes in Tokyo and Western cities is a different matter. The sight of motorcars in London and Paris impressed Jung Bahadur Rana in 1850. Soon after, the Ranas brought European cars on human backs to the country. To them, the vehicles were exclusive extensions of the huge, detached baroque palaces that they built. Therefore, extending the services of vehicles is the manifestation of the people’s rebellious sense of equality.

Capacity for renewal

Another matter is that road accidents happen because of urban mismanagement, as towns grow haphazardly. A growing sense of competition to become towns and to be linked to urban centres unites people to dig their own roads, inviting landslides. I have seen this process for many years on the way to my village in Tehrathum. The excitement of being in bigger cityscapes is strong. But once you are in a city and use the vehicular flow to enter and leave it, you have to rely on a system, like that of the government, and if the system fails you, it is not your fault; it shows that something is wrong with the management of that land.

That is precisely what troubles me in the case of Nepal, especially when I am traumatised by road crashes and collisions. I see a certain link between political inertia and vehicular mismanagement. I even uncannily link it to the stagnant political discourses these days. Lewis Mumford looked at he growing American cities in the last half-century and said that they were guided by the capacity for renewal. We should not be pessimistic, but should put our capacity for renewal in our bid to grow cities and rightfully become more mobile. But such accidents are blemishes that mar our noble urge for regeneration.

Published: 19-10-2014 09:18

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