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Wednesday, January 1, 1997

We often rightly complain about chaotic traffic on our streets and lawlessness in our society. Hyderabad City is a prime example of both these scourges. All visitors tell us that if you can navigate the Hyderabad traffic successfully, you can drive anywhere in the world without fear! And yet we fail to realize that the problem is not with the police, but with us. We neither seem to care for traffic rules, nor do we take responsibility for our actions.

Over the years, we have developed two instincts of survival in a chaotic society. First, do whatever it takes to forge ahead. After all, there is no penalty for wrongdoing, nor is there any reward for good behaviour. Therefore, cut corners, overtake recklessly, violate safety rules, ignore traffic signals, and at times run over people and run away from the scene, as a few spoilt brats have so notoriously demonstrated in Delhi and Mumbai in recent times. Second, if caught in wrong-doing, never admit. Do everything to escape - bribe the policemen, browbeat or buy the witnesses, doctor evidence, prolong litigation, and frustrate due process. But never, never take responsibility for your actions, and be a part of the problem even as you keep complaining of everyone else's wrong doing!

Wrong doing and violation of laws and rules are common in all cultures. No society is an exception. But the way a mistake is handled is different in societies that have perfected rule of law. Speeding is the commonest offence in the US, and very few drivers adhere to speed limits when the traffic is light. The roads are wonderful and the cars are smooth and powerful. Life is hectic, and there are always punishing schedules to be met. It takes superhuman will to resist speeding under those conditions. And yet, when caught, the behaviour of policemen and drivers is impeccable. That is what makes a society flourish and a civilization thrive.

Some years ago, a Harvard professor was caught speeding. When the policemen stopped him and asked for his driving license and other documents, unthinkingly he gave his business card. The policeman, who never met a University Professor, was warm and effusive. But at the end, he doubled the penalty for speeding and for attempting to unduly influence the official by flashing his business card! The professor promptly paid the penalty and left, this time driving carefully!

Contrast this with an Indian politician who was on a visit, and was being driven by an Indian friend to a state capital to call on the governor of a small state. The policeman caught them speeding. While the Indian friend was promptly paying the penalty for speeding, the politician was nudging him to reveal his (the politician's) identity and browbeat the policeman by showing how important he was, and how they were on their way to meet the state governor. The Indian friend had to admonish the politician that even if the governor was caught speeding, he would not be spared!

This culture of rule of law became evident to me during a recent trip overseas. A distinguished Indian American friend, a nationally known financial analyst in the US, and I were driving from Chicago area to Detroit area. It was a Sunday morning. Traffic was light and the weather was good. We had an early luncheon appointment, and we were deeply engaged in conversation. My Indian friend unthinkingly stepped on the accelerator, and soon we were travelling at 80 miles in a 70 mile zone. By the time we realized our mistake, a policeman signaled us to a stop on the freeway, and politely pointed out our speed violation. He said, "Sir, I can understand. This is a Sunday morning, there is no traffic, weather is good, and you are engaged in conversation. No wonder you are speeding." My friend admitted his mistake and we hoped that we would be let off with a verbal warning to be careful. But the good-natured policeman inspected the documents, found everything was alright, and calmly gave a citation for speeding and collected a $100 penalty

The policeman was gentle, but sure of his action, and my friend was contrite, but never tried to avoid the penalty though this meant his plans to change his insurance provider would have to be kept on hold. The question of browbeating or bribing the policeman does not arise. Needless to say, we never crossed the speed limit during the rest of our travels!

Clearly, we need a police force that acts fairly and honourably. Even more important is our willingness to comply with the laws and take responsibility for our mistakes. If both sides keep their bargain, even Hyderabad traffic can be safe, orderly and ultimately faster for everybody. Is it too much to ask?