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Friday, June 15, 2007

Life in Chennai #15: The New Helmet Law

So Chennai finally decided to make wearing a helmet mandatory for all 2-wheelers (motorcycles and scooters). No, they weren’t before. Sorry mom and dad. On the plus side, traffic rarely goes more than 30 km an hour during the day. But despite a public disinterest, a court order prompted the government to finally decide to make it mandatory in the name of public safety. June 1, last Friday, was the enforcement date (for the major urban centres, with the rest of the State July 1). It gives a fascinating and telling picture of how politics works here.

Here is how it went.

Pre-law helmet use: maybe 5%.
All last week suddenly roadside stands and wallahs stocking tall pyramids of boxed helmets appear everywhere. They do a killer business. My colleague told me helmets run from Rs 500 to Rs 1500 for proper ones, but although some premiums appeared that week most were kept reasonable by intense competition. Like anything else in India, a need was created and entrepreneurs filled it immediately from who know what supply chain. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the ones sold on the street, the North American equivalent of being sold out of the back of a van, are not up to standards and are of no use in an accident, but rather only to comply with the law and can be hand for under Rs 500.

So we haven’t even started the law yet and this doesn’t seem like it is having the intending effect...

Thursday, May 31, 1 day before: helmet use still 5%
No one seems to be warming up, practicing for the big day. They gave people a pretty good amount of time to get ready from the Feb 22 law passing, but everyone just waited to the last moment and then complained. I wonder how this is all going to go tomorrow. The local paper reports a mix of malaise and malign against the new law coming into force tomorrow.

Friday, June 1: helmet use 95%
Amazingly, out of closets, cupboards or just under their shirt everyone suddenly has a helmet on. If you don’t you’re getting in trouble.

Police are out in force on nearly every corner handing out tickets to those who were foolish to forget. Apparently fines are Rs 300 with a receipt and Rs 100 without. Ah yes... Without the receipt, you pay less and the policeman pockets it. This is very normal and I question if they even bother paying their traffic police for the “tips” they make. However on a day like this, without a receipt you are just going to get stopped again 2 blocks down and then again and again. With low-end helmets costing not much more than a ticket and policemen saving for their kids’ college and dowry funds, there is a strong financial reason to follow the law.

Typical of how these sorts of decisions are made and implemented here, the politicians decided that it was a good idea, set a date and that was that. They’re going with the stick approach, sorry Bugs Bunny. On June 1, if you don’t have a helmet, you get fined, simple as that.

So tough love, but at least it works, or so you would think: they’ve just successfully got everyone to buy, carry and wear their helmets.

But wait, this is India – things don’t go smooth like that, even when instigated in such a heavy-handed way. Nothing in India can ever be called simple and inertia reigns supreme.

Saturday, June 2: helmet use steady at 95%
Police still out in force. The government congratulates itself in the local papers.

Sunday, June 3: government flip-flops
Despite their law being by court order, the government panders to popular discontent and issues a decree for police to not “harass 2-wheeler riders” for not wearing helmets. So it is still mandatory, but not enforceable, sort of? Brilliant.

Monday, June 4: helmet use maybe 70%
It’s only been 3 days and already the enthusiasm has waned. I’m seeing more and more people driving without helmets. Without the enforcement, the stick, and with the politicians waffling things are sliding back downhill quickly and people are back to doing what they can get away with. I think the only reason that the rates are not dropping off faster is that with all the confusion, some people have yet to hear what the situation is. And of course police can still selectively target people as they do with every other law, to pocket the fee.

Admittedly, I partially understand why people prefer not to wear one: they are hot and uncomfortable and you suddenly need one for all 6 family members you cart around on your bike. According to one article, surveys of Indian drivers also cite, “discomfort, fear of hair-loss, headache, neck pain, and some other reasons,” as why they don’t wear one. So many reasons why the drivers don’t want it, some perhaps fair, some ridiculous, but I’m still stuck on why the government gung-ho has fizzled so quickly. I’m quizzing my colleague to try to understand how the various levels of government relate and how laws are getting passed and upheld.

But it goes on...

Tuesday, June 5: helmet use 50% and falling
Backpedal, backpedal...

So apparently, after weathering petitions and a court challenge that upheld the new law, suddenly the politicians had a change of heart, decided they wanted to be the men of the people and on Tuesday revoked the law for women and children. Yes, that is correct, women and children are now exempt again from having to wear helmets while driving. Now, there are some given reasons: for women including the effects on the important cultural practice of putting flowers in hair and excessive sweatiness in the helmet; for children, a concern with the weight of the helmet on their developing necks. All fine and good, sort of, but no crash helmets for women and children? Really?

And more over, if these are such needed exemptions, how did no one think of this just a teeny bit earlier... like last Thursday before everyone had to go out and buy one?

This is one of those things that I’ve learned enough to get that it happens, see some how it happens, but not yet enough to understand the underlying why it happens.

Friday, June 7: helmet use back to 5%
So after a brief excitement period of doing something, it appears the whole deal has simply been forgotten and everything gone back to normal. Oh, helmets still have officially changed from optional to mandatory for men – laws can be changed – but chalk up another example of failing to change cultural practices and of politicians choosing to be popular rather than any sort of leader. But this isn’t simply an Indian inertia thing. Who would ever expect to change people’s practices with so little effort? In order to get Canadians to wear bicycle helmets took years of sustained and multi-pronged effort. Yeah, “sustained” and “multi-pronged” don’t exactly come to mind here.

It reminds me of the auto rickshaw rate enforcement and their fizzled attempts to enforce meter use back in March. Yeah, like where did that all go? It was heralded as such a big deal, the government congratulating themselves all over the papers. But I’ve still only ever used a meter twice and was shocked both times. Oh, the papers would report 15 autos this day with licences revoked for not having running meters or a hundred that day fined for not having the new fare rates programmed in, but it is a feel-good promotion for the government. On the street nothing has changed with the 100,000 auto drivers in the city. You absorb the same through the media news about plans and actions of slum clearance, environmental improvement or following traffic rules – talk is made, money is spent, paper is set a-flying, but a day, a week, a month later, very little changes. You can’t really expect things to change overnight of course, so the sanest solution, true everywhere, is to mostly ignore the politicians making names for themselves and be patient; real change takes longer to take root.

Why do things happen this way? “It’s India”, said with a shrug, the equivalent of the French “c’est la vie”. That is the answer to most questions of “why?” we encounter here. It comes up all the time. To attempt a fuller answer usually doesn’t make it any clearer without a much deeper understanding of their complex socio-political history, of which I am certainly not qualified.

So, a week of excitement, confusion and field-days for the cops and the newspapers and everyone now has a nice shiny new helmet in their closet. Beyond that, not sure what we’ve accomplished: another law on the books that isn’t enforced effectively or consistently, another chance for politicians to play the heroes of the people and a week for me to confusingly quiz my colleague at lunch over WTF is going on today?

Sometimes, much of the time I think, India is like watching TV on fast forward and 8 channels on picture-in-picture. *Shrug* It’s India...


Hot Soup said...

I see you've been in India long enough to ask "not sure what we've accomplished".

I don't suppose anyone is paranoid enough to be blaming this oh-so-brief surge on the powerful helmet lobby?

Hot Soup said...

sorry, to clarify, the helmet manufacturer's lobby ...