Recently I received news from my high school email group that a schoolmate, a reputed doctor, was killed when travelling in an overnight long distance bus. A newspaper article said the driver lost control. The usual questions come to mind. Was the driver under the influence of alcohol? Did he fall asleep at the wheel? Would monetary compensation obliterate the numbing grief and would the concept of karma help the young family through the harsh years ahead?

I remember a trip to Europe, where like most other organised groups, we were driven in a bus across nine countries over two weeks. The driver stuck to the schedule like clockwork, took obligatory breaks every 2-3 hours and would not drive after a certain time of day. We developed a fondness for the big guy and missed him when a different driver turned up after a week. Our tour guide explained that safety regulations require that the driver take a break after a week. The bus was equipped with software which monitored data such as speed and hours driven, ensuring maximum performance and, therefore, safety.

This incident came to mind last week when I was stuck in my car in peak traffic hour in Chennai. I was aghast when a government bus casually swiped the side of a small stationary car. The bus driver was nonchalant and didn’t even care to stop. The passengers in the bus craned their necks back to look with polite curiosity, possibly to see how the car driver would react. But the elderly man displayed remarkable equanimity, didn’t bat an eyelid and drove on with the quiet acceptance of this road ‘mafiaism’.

The Great Indian disregard for life on the road begins with government-authorised driving schools, which issue licences for a fee, with very little instruction. Most of us drive by instinct and sharp conditioned reflexes, which we need to remain alive. The buses and water tankers are our driving schools along with whole families perched precariously on scooters with an infant dangling from the mother’s arms while a not-much-older one clings on for dear life. Bikers defy Newton’s laws of motion and draw impossible trajectories on the road with impudence and insouciance.

If you have a minor skirmish with one of these bikers driving at a shamefully sedate pace, you will be the object of judgmental stares and comments from onlookers. The big car is always the bad guy and if you can’t read the mind of the poor biker then you probably shouldn’t drive.

If the traffic doesn’t kill us, surely arrhythmias will. Or is the Indian cardiac muscle tougher with years of acclimatisation?

While watching an episode of my favourite show Modern Family, I am impressed with the instructions a father gives his young son while teaching him cycling. Check your shoe laces, helmet and mirror before you start. How simple and sensible!

Now why didn’t I know that? How many of us teach our children road safety? “Be careful” is not a specific instruction. Can prayers and wishful thinking save our children and loved ones when they set out bravely to the war-field everyday?

We have adapted so much from the West — clothes, food, attitude to family, relationships and sexual liberalisation, among others. Why did we leave out respect for human life and courtesy to fellow humans on the road?

Can we look forward to a day when our roads heal and miscreants on the road are wary of punishment from traffic policemen rather than getting away by greasing their palms? When public and private vehicles become accountable for their condition and performance? Does the answer lie in one of our several software companies which cater for more deserving societies?

Would the government seek a solution or do we have to look beyond government regulations to genetic engineering to change the Indian psyche?

Till then do we display the great Indian “tolerance” and prove Oprah Winfrey right? Do we accept death by accident as inevitable and give it a special status along with cancer, tsunamis, earthquakes and floods and accept it as nature’s way of controlling the teeming millions?

Is human life dispensable in India ?

(The writer is an orthodontist. Her email is: sridevipadu@gmail.com)

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